Antibiotics are called “wonder drugs” for a reason. Infections that took millions of lives in centuries past are now curable with an antibiotic prescription that takes a doctor all of ten seconds to fill out.
There is a drawback to the drugs, though. Since bacteria are some of the most adept evolvers on earth, they quickly develop a resistance to antibiotics. This resistance, which is only encouraged by our overuse of antibiotics, is a growing cause for concern in the medical community. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that antibiotic resistance causes over 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths annually.
As a new study from Rush University Medical Center points out, infants are hit particularly hard by antibiotic resistance.
“Some infections in children that have typically been treated with oral antibiotics in the past may now require hospitalization, treatment with intravenous drugs, or both,” lead study author Dr. Latania K. Logan says.
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Dr. Logan’s study analyzed 370,000 bacteria cultures taken from pediatric patients from 1999-2011. Researchers identified an increasing prevalence of a key enzyme in the cultures capable of rendering common antibiotics ineffective. The enzyme is the extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL).
75% of bacterial strands containing ESBL were resistant to common antibiotics. Here’s the troubling part: .28% of bacteria strands collected in 1999 produced ESBL. But in strands collected from 2011, this number jumped to .92%.
“These antibiotic-resistant bacteria have traditionally been found in health care settings but are increasingly being found in the community, in people who have not had a significant history of health care exposure,” Logan said.
To help slow the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, the CDC gives patients antibiotic use guidelines to prevent overuse. But the problem of antibiotic overuse spreads further than the drugs’ use among humans. The same antibiotics taken by humans are administered in massive quantities to animals in the agriculture industry. Here’s what the Keep Antibiotics Working organization has to say about the problem of agricultural antibiotic use:
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“By one estimate, 80 percent of all antibiotics and related drugs (antimicrobials) sold in the United States are used in livestock production. The lion’s share -- roughly 70 percent of the total -- are fed to healthy farm animals to promote growth and prevent diseases that would otherwise result from the unsanitary conditions found in overcrowded agricultural facilities. About half of those drugs are identical or closely related to medicines used in treating humans.”
Though the European Union has heeded to the advice of the scientific community and started reducing antibiotic use in livestock, the FDA has shown no interest in following suit. Senator Elizabeth Warren called out FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg on the issue during a recent Senate hearing.
“If we continue to use 30 million pounds of antibiotics in food animals every year — which is about four times as much as we use in people — we’re likely to have a lot more resistant infections, and fewer antibiotics that work when we need them,” she said.