It’s flu season. And we’re all about to crisscross the country to exchange hugs, kisses, and germs. We’re going to get sick. And when we do, many of us will run to our doctors and, hoping to get better, demand antibiotics.
And that’s the problem: Antibiotics don’t cure the flu (which is viral, not bacterial), but the overprescription of antibiotics imperils us all by driving antibiotic resistance. This threat is growing, so much so that in a recent widely read Medium article, Wired science blogger and self-described “scary disease girl” Maryn McKenna painted a disturbingly plausible picture of a world in which antibiotics have become markedly less effective.
That future is the focus of McKenna’s interview this week on the Inquiring Minds podcast:
“For 85 years,” McKenna explains on the show, antibiotics “have been solving the problem of infectious disease in a way that’s really unique in human history. And people assume those antibiotics are always going to be there. And unfortunately, they’re wrong.”
Here are some disturbing facts about the growing problem of antibiotic resistance:
1. In the United States alone, 2 million people each year contract serious antibiotic-resistant infections, and 23,000 die from them.
These figures come from a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on antibiotic resistance that, for the first time, uses a blunt classification scheme to identify “urgent,” “serious,” and “concerning” threats from drug-resistant bacteria. The CDC currently lists three “urgent threats”: drug-resistant gonorrhea, drug-resistant “enterobacteriaceae” such as E. coli, and Clostridium difficile, which causes life-threatening diarrhea and is often acquired in hospitals. Clostridium difficile kills at least 14,000 people each year.
2. We’ve been warned about antibiotic resistance since at least 1945. We just haven’t been listening.
From the very first discovery of antibiotics, scientists have known that resistance is a danger. Alexander Fleming himself, credited with the discovery of penicillin, warned us as early as 1945 that antibiotics could lose their effectiveness. His eerily prescient Nobel Prize speech cautions that “there may be a danger, though, in underdosage [of penicillin].
It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body. The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”
3. Antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria are on the rise.
Clearly, antibiotic resistance is not a new phenomenon. Nonetheless, the frequency of these “antibiotic resistance events” is increasing. For example, from 1980 to 1987, cases of penicillin-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae (the bacteria that causes pneumonia) remained steady at about 5 percent of all strains.
By 1997, 44 percent of strains were showing resistance. Similarly, Enterococci bacteria can cause urinary tract infections and meningitis (among other diseases), and in 1989, fewer than 0.5 percent of strains found in hospitals were resistant to antibiotics. Four years later, though, that number was at 7.9 percent, and by 1998, some hospitals reported levels as high as 30 to 50 percent. “The more antibiotics are used, the more quickly bacteria develop resistance,” says the CDC.
Read More: Here