You’ve probably heard the news: a woman in Pennsylvania is infected with a bacteria strain that is resistant to what doctors consider to be “the antibiotic of last resort.” While this sort of infection has occurred elsewhere around the world, this is the first incidence of it in the U.S.
The woman’s infection will be able to be treated with the second-to-last resort class of antibiotics, but the discovery sparked concern among public health officials who have been warning that we are rapidly nearing a post-antibiotic era.
It’s a difficult story to make sense of, if you haven’t been following the increasing flood of warnings and reports that state bacteria is evolving to
Here’s what you need to know now:
How Do Bacteria Develop Antibiotic Resistance?
Bacteria are living creatures that are hardwired to develop survival strategies. They are very good at mutating in response to anything that can kill them, specifically antibiotics.
Bacteria can produce and use antibiotics against other bacteria; those that survive are resistant to the antibiotic that killed the rest of the strain. These genetic mutations can enable bacteria to produce enzymes that incapacitate antibiotics, or change their mode of attacking cells to a new method that the antibiotic can’t target.
They can also acquire resistance from another bacterium, through mating. The scientific name for this is “conjugation,” during which bacteria can transfer genetic material to each other. They also trade genetic material when they attack each other.
What Are Last- Resort Antibiotics?
Bacteria have been developing resistance to antibiotics since shortly after people first started using the drugs. Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, warned about antibiotic failures when he accepted his Nobel prize in 1945.
Medical professionals have been careful to use particularly powerful antibiotics carefully, in order to keep bacteria from developing resistance to what have been dubbed last-resort drugs – which includes members of a class of antibiotics known as carbapenems.
Colostin is a particularly potent antibiotic that doctors typically use when a bacterial infection has not responded to other antibiotics. Widely used in the 1970s and 1980s, it fell out of favor because it caused serious side effects and could be toxic to the liver. Since it hasn’t been widely prescribed, bacteria had – until recently – not developed resistance to it. It is sometimes used with carbapenems to treat stubborn infections.
The strain of bacteria found in Pennsylvania’s woman is thought to be is just a single gene away from being completely drug resistant.
What Can We Do About Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria?
Although antibiotic resistance is part of the natural life processes of bacteria, humans are making the problem worse by using antibiotics improperly. 2 million people a year in the US develop antibiotic-resistant infections, and 23,000 of them die of those infections, according to the CDC.
People around the world are confused about how antibiotics work and the right way to take them. And this lack of knowledge is fueling the rise of drug-resistant superbugs, according to the World Health Organization.
WHO recently conducted a global test to gauge people’s understanding of antibiotics. The world failed.
- 64 percent of those asked believed that antibiotics can treat colds and flu
- A third of people surveyed believed they should stop taking antibiotics as soon as they feel better, rather than completing the prescription.
- Three-quarters of respondents think antibiotic resistance means the body is resistant to the drugs
- 66 percent believe individuals are not at risk of a drug-resistant infection if they take antibiotics as prescribed.
- Nearly half of those surveyed think drug resistance is only a problem in people who take antibiotics often.
The facts: Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria develop – typically through mutation – an immunity to the antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections. The more exposure bacteria have to antibiotics, the more likely they are to develop survival techniques that make them less vulnerable to antibiotics. Resistant strains of bacteria, sometimes called “superbugs,” include multi-drug-resistant typhoid, tuberculosis and gonorrhea which kill hundreds of thousands of people a year.
What can you do? Follow your treatment plan – if you take only some of your antibiotics the bacteria will learn how the drugs work and will live to share their resistance with other bacteria.
And if your doctor prescribes antibiotics often, ask him or her about their thoughts on the superbug problem. WHO is hoping that doctors start treating antibiotics like a precious commodity, and you can ask your doctor or dentist if you really need antibiotics to get better. Sometimes its unavoidable, but you want to make sure your health professional has a process in place to limit the use of antibiotics when possible.
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