Antibiotic Resistant Superbugs Are Real — And Dangerous
Last week, we were treated to an unpleasant surprise. Cases of gonorrhea resistant to every antibiotic we can throw at it have greatly increased. It’s scary to think that there are bacteria immune to multiple generations of our best defenses against them, but here we are, exactly as predicted by doctors and scientists who have been ringing the alarms for decades. It’s tempting to waive the dire stats about antibiotic resistance because a world where you’re once again routinely at risk of dying from infections is really scary.
Many surgeries would no longer be feasible because the risk of infection will outweigh the benefit of the procedure. Improper treatment of wounds would once again become lethal. Childbirth will become far more dangerous, and it will once again be a gamble for a child to make it into his or her teens. It will be a painful step back in time as we’re no longer dying mostly from long term degenerative diseases like today, but from bacterial infections, like at the turn of the 20th century, even with modern sanitation techniques.
Of course it’s easy to downplay such fears. After all, yes, cases of bacteria we can’t treat with any antibiotic in our arsenal are on the rise, but they’re just a fraction of a fraction of all cases, and those increases just mean that we have a greater fraction of a percentage on our hands. The overwhelming majority of patients are still perfectly fine and their infections are being treated. Besides, all we need to do is cut down on antibiotic use and make more antibiotics, so how big of a problem could this possibly be? Aren’t scientists already working on this, as well as treatments that lower existing bacterial resistance?
While it’s true that we should cut down on antibiotics, actually doing so has been extremely problematic. Many patients demand antibiotics for colds and viral infections because in their minds, if they don’t get a pill, the doctors aren’t actually doing anything to help them. Only recently have doctors began to push back against handing out antibiotics like candy out in the field rather than complain to colleagues. Many felt their hands were tied as patients were asked to grade them in satisfaction surveys and would ding them if they held back the antibiotics. Thankfully, this has changed.
But while doctors are taking the time to explain the dangers of resistance and how not finishing your course of treatment helps create superbugs, patients’ behavior still needs serious readjustment. Too many still don’t finish the full course after they start feeling better, leaving the toughest bacteria capable of surviving the worst of the antibiotics’ effects in their systems and passing this precursor to resistance to others at some point. Things are even worse in vast swaths of the developing world which, contrary to what some may think, are actually awash in cheap antibiotics sold over the counter.
Patients suffering from viral infections are taking powerful antibiotics which they absolutely don’t need with no oversight. And that’s worrisome because taking unnecessary antibiotics has serious side-effects that far too often will go unmentioned. Because they are indiscriminate in what bacteria they kill, they damage the gut flora you need for healthy digestion as well as interfere with the growth of new brain cells in the part of your brain responsible for learning. Studies on long term effects of this damage are ongoing, but even early on, they’re turning up some disturbing results.
If they’re infected with bacteria that cause serious diseases like tuberculosis, they don’t take their full courses, and will continue to spread it long after they supposedly feel fine. There’s no rule that surviving bacteria will always be the strongest and develop any resistance to the next attempt to kill them, but it’s statistically more likely when you take into account how much those bacteria reproduce, how many there are, and the number of cases where antibiotics create an evolutionary driver.
Another case where bacteria are being pushed to evolve resistance is typical factory farming. Livestock and poultry are given antibiotics to treat potential infections instead of actual ones, or to fatten them up. Bacteria under nearly constant onslaught are culled to leave the strongest and those which found a mutation that allows them to survive unscathed, jumping to other animals or humans and back, accelerating the development of new superbugs on a scale that can only be described as industrial.
None of this is new to researchers and public health experts. We know what the problems are, and there are scientists creating drugs that reduce or fight bacterial resistance. However, they’re facing the threat of budget cuts every year to carry out their work in surveying and fighting superbugs, and as the United States, one of the nations best equipped to drive the discussion about worldwide monitoring and mitigation on farms and in hospitals, is intent on pulling out of international agreements and cutting its aid over misguided moralism and obstinacy, the job will get even harder.
If we want to head off antibiotic resistance before it becomes a daily problem for patients across the planet, we need additional funding for research into new families of antibiotics and incentives into making them faster and more cheaply so we have new weapons in the pipeline. We also need partnerships that empower the WHO to help get unregulated antibiotics off the streets in the developing world and international bodies to monitor how they’re used in agriculture. Years lost to ignorance of the problem and pretending that things like superbugs respect borders and will declare themselves on customs forms mean trillions of chances for new resistance to evolve unimpeded.