The idea of antibiotics failing us has been looming in the back of our minds for some time now. Remember the movie where Will Smith famously finds a cure for the man-made virus that wiped out the entire fictional U.S.? How about “World War Z” where Brad Pitt stops a zombie-like pandemic? Although these situations are of the sci-fi nature and meant to entertain us, there’s some reality to these fantasies. Most people are aware of the risks of antibiotic overuse, yet not a lot has been done to combat this crisis… until now.
According to a new report from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 2 million illnesses every year are from an antibiotic-resistant infection with at least 23,000 dying as a result. The CDC’s estimates are based on conservative assumptions. The report outlines 17 drug-resistant bacteria and one harmful fungus into three categories based on the threat they pose. Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), one of the three bacteria that were deemed “urgent threats”, is resistant to most drugs and kills a high number of those infected. CRE is still considered rare, but it has already been identified in health facilities in 44 states. The CDC also classifies common germs such as salmonella, tuberculosis and MRSA as “serious threats”.
The Neg-Bacteria Revolution
Antimicrobial drugs, most commonly know as antibiotics, are beneficial for us humans in the sense that they represent a weapon for us to use against bacterial infections. But like most weapons, they are often abused or misused. Antibiotics have become overly prescribed, leading to the emergence of bacterial strains that no longer respond to antimicrobial drugs that once worked before. To illustrate this concept, we take a closer look at how our body works by seeing what bacteria see.
Imagine if I were a bacterium in charge of a colony in your body. My main goal in life is to live as long as possible, even if that is at the mercy of your body. The most common form of reproduction is binary fission, which is literally duplicating my DNA and splitting myself in half.
I also consider myself lucky. Another bacterium who’s a friend of mine transferred some of his resistant gene to me. He went through a random mutation and it allowed him to survive when others died.
As our colony grows in your body, you and your doctor respond by employing an antibiotic reserved for serious illnesses called fluoroquinolones. Fluoroquinolones attacks a key enzyme required for DNA replication. This means death for us bacteria, because we cease to reproduce!
As time goes on, more casualties occur on the battlefield that is your body. However, there is a growing presence of revolutionaries. Now that my friends and I all possess the resistant gene, we can destroy nearly every antibiotic that comes our way via our new weapon the enzyminator. We that disguise this in our cells and we can pump out the antibiotics that try to enter our cells.
The days are looking numbered for you, the host. We continue to adapt to the drugs you send our way. Our army is strengthening with each passing day. We’ve seen your whole arsenal and your weapons have become ineffective.
Raising awareness is the first step, now we can start our fight against antibiotic resistance. For starters, our healthcare approach needs to change by decreasing the prescription of unneeded or inappropriately used antibiotics. Instead of giving broad spectrum antibiotics, medical practitioners should use more targeted drugs. Only a handful of new antibiotics have surfaced in the past few decades and not a lot of companies are developing new drugs to replace the ineffective ones. The CDC links 22% of the resistant illnesses to food-related hazards. This should alarm everyone out there (especially those of us who consume meat)! The meat industry overuses antibiotics in factory farming by treating healthy animals to prevent the possibility of disease. In order to minimize exposure to antibiotic resistant pathogens in the meat supply, consumers are advised to buy only meats that are labeled “USDA Certified Organic” or “Raised Without Antibiotics: USDA Process Certified”.
“Efforts to prevent such threats build on the foundation of proven public health strategies: immunization, infection control, protecting the food supply, antibiotic stewardship, and reducing person-to-person spread through screening, treatment and education”, concludes Dr. Tom Frieden. We all have a duty to help fix this crisis. The perseverance of our current cures is in our hands.