Antibiotics and Illness

The discovery of Penicillin in 1928 by doctor Alexander Fleming opened the door to the era of modern medicine. Prior to the development of commercial antibiotics, infections were difficult to treat and individuals frequently died from what, today, would be regarded as minor ailments. Unfortunately massive over-prescription of antibiotics in the 1960s and 1970s coupled with poor compliance with treatment regimens led to the evolution of so-called “super-bugs” capable of withstanding many of the antibiotic compounds that only a few years before had been completely effective.

Two primary issues exist with the use of antibiotics. The first is that using antibiotics when they should not be used leads to the natural selection of bacteria that can resist the effects of particular antibiotics; thus the entire strain of surviving bacteria becomes drug resistant. The second issue is that non-compliance with treatment regimens likewise strengthens the surviving population of bacteria, causing the entire strain to become more drug resistant. Both problems have occurred and so today there are many bacteria that cannot effectively be treated with antibiotics.

Doctors, seeking to present patients with quick solutions, over-prescribed antibiotics for decades, for example by giving them to patients who had viral infections. The food industry continues to over-use antibiotics by giving them to livestock as a precautionary measure. In both cases the results are the same: the emergence of “super-bugs” that resist treatment and are thus potentially lethal. A lesser problem, but a problem nevertheless, occurs in the home: soaps and other domestic items contain mild antibiotic compounds and again the result is simply to ensure the evolution of drug-resistant strains of bacteria.

Even when antibiotics are correctly prescribed, widespread non-compliance with treatment regimens leads to the emergence of “super-bugs.” When a patient is given a treatment of antibiotics the regime is usually for seven to ten days. Unfortunately many individuals stop taking their antibiotics as soon as symptoms disappear. What then happens is that any surviving bacteria go on to reproduce and thus the entire strain of bacteria is now resistant to the antibiotic that was used – those that died were susceptible, those that survived went on to form the basis of a resistant strain.

Is there anything that can be done to slow down the trend towards all antibiotics becoming useless? Doctors have slowly learned to prescribe antibiotics only for bacterial infections, but already there are many bacteria that are immune to today’s antibiotics. Individuals can boycott food produced under conditions in which antibiotics are regularly added to the feedstock and stop buying soaps and creams containing antibiotics, but it is too late to undo the damage already done. All that can be hoped is that widespread misuse of antibiotics can be curtailed before all antibiotics have lost their efficacy and new strains of bacteria have become sufficiently lethal to cause widespread fatalities.

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