The Rise of Superbugs
Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
It started with the sniffles. I was feeling tired, my throat was scratchy and I had a runny nose. I suspected it was the first symptom of a cold. Because I work closely with people all day, I had to cancel my appointments, move my clients and try to get better.
That's when a friend said, "I have an extra Z-Pak, why don't I bring it over for you?" A Z-Pak is a powerful dose of antibiotics called Azithromycin or Zithromax. Take three pills over three days and the bad bacteria are destroyed. "Go ahead," my friend said, "it can't hurt."
He was so wrong about that.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the very first antibiotic. At that time, up to 90% of children with pneumonia and bacteria in the blood, died. Surgeries, even when successful, put the patient at high risk of developing a post-op lethal infection. Sexually transmitted diseases carried long-term consequences of sterility, insanity and death. All of those things dropped off dramatically once the "miracle drug" of antibiotics came into use.
Their success wasn't limited to human patients. Farmers found that if they fed antibiotics to animals in their food, the animals would grow faster. Bigger animals in less time means bigger profits. In the more than 80 years since they were discovered, antibiotic use has exploded. In many countries, the pills are available over the counter, without a prescription and they're given to everyone because "it can't hurt."
Bacteria are tricky. Billions of them live in and on our bodies. The vast majority of them are beneficial, helping us digest food, produce vitamins and fend off diseases. But a few can cause real harm. That's what antibiotics have helped save us from.
That's beginning to change. Over the last couple of decades, we've seen the emergence of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" like MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), VRSA (vancomycin-resistant S. aureus) and others. These are bacteria that aren't affected by most, or in some cases any, antibiotics. And we're directly responsible for the creation of those superbugs.
Here's how it works. When bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, most die. But sometimes, a few bacteria, the mutants, manage to survive. Those mutants are resistant to antibiotics, so they're free to multiply in your body, doubling every few hours, until your body is overwhelmed. We have been encouraging the growth of those mutants in several ways.
First, when we get sick, we've got to stop reaching for antibiotics unless we know the problem we have is a bacterial infection. In some countries like Sweden, they've been limiting the use of antibiotics for years and their rates of superbug resistant bacteria are lower than in countries with indiscriminate antibiotic use.
YES - Antibiotics Help
|Bacterial Bronchitis with a mild fever and minimal mucus|
NO - Antibiotics Won't Help
|Viral Bronchitis (High Fever, Cough, Thick Mucus)|
Second, if you're prescribed an antibiotic, take the entire course unless directed by a doctor to do otherwise. If you just take part of the dose, you risk not killing all the bacteria. A few can then develop a resistance to the antibiotic you've taken and turn into superbugs.
Third, we've got to stop farmers from giving antibiotics to animals for breakfast. In 2006 the European Union banned the use of antibiotics to promote growth in livestock. In studies of the European ban, researchers have found a reduction in resistant bugs in animals.
Over 70% of antibiotic sales in the United States go to farm animals. We can stop it, by not supporting it. When possible, only purchase meat from farmers that raise their animals without antibiotic food supplements.
Antibiotics are the foundation for much of today's life-saving medication. Help keep them effective by following these simple suggestions.
Watch this Ted Talk on Antibiotics.
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