Antibiotics have become such an expected part of modern life that we rarely stop to think about the major impact they have had on human progress. Less than a century ago, simple ailments we can now cure with a course of pills presented life-threatening challenges to patients and their doctors. It’s not overstating the case to say that modern life would not be what it is today in the absence of antibiotics.
The Diminishing Effectiveness of Antibiotics
However, antibiotic resistance—or the mutation of pathogens into superbugs that are immune to modern antibiotics—has been a threat looming on the horizon of medicine for quite some time. The World Health Organization has been issuing stern warnings for several years now, and earlier in 2017 released a list of 12 families of “priority pathogens” in a “bid to guide and promote research and development (R&D) of new antibiotics”, as part of WHO’s efforts to address growing global resistance to antimicrobial medicines.
However, it wasn’t until very recently that the concern around antibiotic resistance went from something in the medical and scientific field into the general public arena. Recently, Public Health England launched a campaign urging people not to ask their GPs for antibiotics in a bid to keep the drugs working for longer, arguing that "reducing inappropriate use of antibiotics can help us stay ahead of superbugs.” According to The Guardian, the language being used to describe the risks surrounding AMR is certainly not understated: “England’s chief medical officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has previously warned of a ‘post-antibiotic apocalypse’, where antibiotics no longer work for serious infections.” Davies told the Guardian: “Without effective antibiotics, minor infections could become deadly and many medical advances could be at risk – surgery, chemotherapy and Caesareans could become simply too dangerous. But reducing inappropriate use of antibiotics can help us stay ahead of superbugs.”
Britain Health Officials Respond
While Britain’s health officials aren’t advocating that patients stop using antibiotics altogether, they are saying that overuse and over-prescription has contributed to where we are now, that is on the brink of finding that the drugs we’ve relied on for decades might prove ineffective at fighting common infections. However, not everyone in the scientific field is convinced that this advice is fair. After all, it is not patients’ fault that antibiotic resistance has been allowed to escalate to the point it’s at today, when warnings about the dangers of resistance date back to the 1980s. As health and science journalist Hannah Flynn argued in The Guardian, “The power lies with doctors, who have for far too long been forced to condense the complex, costly and time-consuming matter of improving their patients’ health into 10-minute slots – slots that probably took the patient weeks to obtain. Instead doctors have continued to overprescribe antibiotics at an alarming rate, despite warnings about antimicrobial resistance going back as far as the 1980s.”
What To Do About Antibiotic Overuse
So what can be done nationally and internationally to delay and reverse this threat? One of the biggest causes is the use of antibiotic-laden growth agents in industrial agriculture, and the dairy and meat industries. While this has been banned in the EU, it still persists in the US. As this overuse is a main cause of what drives up resistance levels in pathogens, activists should advocate for an international ban effective immediately.
Furthermore, the R&D encouraged by the WHO must happen immediately—not when the problem escalates to the point of crisis. But all in all, a multi-pronged approach is key. As the WHO said: “While more R&D is vital, alone, it cannot solve the problem. To address resistance, there must also be better prevention of infections and appropriate use of existing antibiotics in humans and animals, as well as rational use of any new antibiotics that are developed in future.”