Although it is hard for most of us to imagine, just 80 years ago many simple infections were fatal. The Centers for Disease Control warn that the era of easy treatment of nearly 20 different kinds of bacterial infections with antibiotics is over due to an epidemic of antibiotic resistance, in which bacteria have developed genetic mechanisms that enable them to survive exposure to the drugs.
What is antibiotic resistance?
Most antibiotics, both natural antibiotics and synthetic antibiotics, work by interfering with the growth of bacteria by counteracting a specific gene that codes a specific protein the bacterium needs to reproduce itself.
Sometimes a single bacterium has a mutation that enables it to continue making the chemicals it needs despite the antibiotic. If this "bug" survives, it can pass its antibiotic resistance gene on to future generations, but it can also "mate" with nearby bacteria and pass the gene to them. In these two ways, bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance.
In the meantime, both non-resistant disease-causing bacteria and the "good bacteria" that protect from infection have been killed by the antibiotic. This gives the immune system a lot more work to do to fight the infection.
What do people do that increases the likelihood of antibiotic resistance?
When doctors prescribe antibiotics just because their patients expect them, for instance, to treat a viral infection for which the antibiotic has no expected benefit, the antibiotic wipes out bacteria that don't have the genes for antibiotic resistance.
This leaves the antibiotic resistant bacteria more resources to multiply.
Another way antibiotic resistance arises is by patients failing to take all the antibiotics they actually need. If you start feeling good after a few days and just forget to take your entire antibiotic prescription, it kills the "easy" bugs but leaves the more virulent bacteria behind. You may suffer a relapse, or you may pass a new, hard-to-treat infection on to someone else.
And yet another source of antibiotic resistance is uncooked or undercooked meat. Cattle fed in feedlots, chickens raised in tiny cages, and pigs raised on massive hog farms are given antibiotics to help them avoid infections. Their antibiotic resistant bacteria can be passed on to people consuming undercooked or raw meat. These untreatable infections also spread through cross-contamination in kitchens and through manures that find their way into salad greens.
Why are CDC scientists so concerned about antibiotic resistance?
In a new publicized report, the CDC lists 18 infections for which there is no longer an easy antibiotic cure. The CDC are also concerned about "nightmare bacteria" called carbapenem resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), which spread through hospitals and rehabilitation centers, now found in 44 states. These nightmare bacteria cause death by diarrhea and cannot be treated with any current antibiotic.
An antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea infects 800,000 people per year. A hard-to-treat infection called Clostridium infects 250,000 people per year. Altogether over 2,000,000 Americans come down with antibiotic-resistant infections each year and at least 23,000 die of the direct effects of the disease. Tens of thousands more die with complications caused by antibiotic-resistant disease. These infections cost the American economy $55 billion per year.
What can you do to protect yourself from antibiotic resistant diseases?
Prevention is much more effective than cure. Here are some simple ways you can reduce your own risk of getting an untreatable infection.
- Wash your hands in warm soapy water, but don't use disinfectants. The more bacteria are exposed to disinfectants, the more likely they are to develop resistance to them.
- Eat foods with live cultures of friendly bacteria (such as yogurt or sauerkraut, kefir or kimchi) on a regular basis, especially when you are taking antibiotics. These bacteria keep infectious microbes from establishing a film in your digestive tract.
- If you eat conventionally raise meat, cook it thoroughly, and don't let drip cross-contaminate your kitchen.
- Keep veggies, especially those that have rinds or rough skins, separate from meat and dairy products