You’ve heard of “superbugs,” right – bacteria that have grown resistant to antibiotics due to widespread misuse of the drugs?
When someone was infected by one these bugs, there was always a last line of defense: harsh, aggressive antibiotics called polymyxins. But health experts warned that the day would come when that defense could fall, when we would enter a “post-antibiotic era” in which it would become increasingly difficult to treat even common cuts and diseases like strep and pneumonia. Operations that are routine today, like knee replacements and caesarean sections, would be more dangerous due to untreatable infection.
That day appears to have come.
News of an untreatable bacteria infecting pigs in China came in a study published this week in Lancet Infectious Diseases. The bacteria carries a gene called MCR-1 that makes it resistant to polymyxins. What makes MCR-1 even scarier is that bacteria carrying the gene have jumped from pigs to humans.
Researchers found MCR-1 in 20 percent of sampled pigs and 15 percent of sampled raw meat from markets. It was also found in 16 of 1,322 patients at two Chinese hospitals. The bacteria with MCR-1 have spread to Laos and Malaysia – and probably beyond.
This is the first World Antibiotic Awareness Week, a campaign by the World Health Organization to stop indiscriminate use of these life-saving medicines. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are already blamed for at least 700,000 deaths per year worldwide, but health experts fear that number will jump significantly by 2050, to at least 10 million per year.
Governments worldwide must invest more in developing more effective medicines. Only 1.2 percent of the National Institutes of Health research budget, for instance, is spent on antimicrobial resistance. That’s just not enough.
Individuals also have a role in fighting antibiotic abuse. For starters, they should question whether it makes sense to get a prescription for antibiotics, which treat bacterial infections, not viruses. If a prescription is warranted, take it in its entirety. Microbes that survive treatment because they weren’t completely killed off become more resistant.
Another thing: Stop using “antibacterial” soap with triclosan. Research has found that under normal hand-washing conditions, it’s no better at killing germs than regular soap. When it goes down the drain, it adds to the problem of breeding more resistant bacteria.
One of the most egregious overuses of antibiotics is in meat production. It’s estimated that about 70 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are given to help fatten healthy livestock and poultry. Consumers should demand the end to such indiscriminate use and patronize producers and restaurants that have committed to being antibiotic-free.