Updated: Jul 21
19 December 2018
Antibiotics and the birth of modern medicine
Have you taken antibiotics recently? According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) about 3% of us around the world are taking prescribed antibiotics at any one time. The benefit of antibiotics is unquestionable. They have saved millions of lives and made many complicated medical procedures possible.
When Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin in 1928, he laid the foundations for an era of incredible medical advances. Without antibiotics, transplant procedures would be impossible, we would may not have developed chemotherapy, pneumonia would kill twice as many of us, tuberculosis would become untreatable and common sexually transmitted diseases could be deadly.
We’ve come to consider antibiotics a reliable cure-all, but they don’t work for everything. They are only effective against certain types of bacteria and they are not at all effective against viruses such as the common cold or flu. Even against bacteria they are becoming less and less effective as microbes evolve and adapt to become resistant to the drugs designed to kill them. There are now bacterial organisms that can’t be killed by any of the known antibiotics. This phenomenon is known as antimicrobial resistance and antibiotic resistance comes under this umbrella. Microbes will adapt at a remarkable rate to ensure their own survival. When a new anti-microbial drug is put into use it is only a matter of time before the organisms will develop resistance, but the problems of overuse and misuse have accelerated the risk.
Flemming himself gave an early warning about the dangers of misuse when the first penicillin resistant bacteria were discovered in 1940, three years before penicillin had even hit the market. The more antibiotics are used to treat minor infections, the more likely it is that they will fail against much bigger and more serious threats. Health organisations around the world are trying to reduce the amount of antibiotics we are all taking to keep the bacteria at bay but it isn’t easy. While Europe has banned farmers from giving antibiotics to livestock to boost growth, in many countries this is still a common practice. In other countries antibiotic treatments are not regulated at all and are sold over the counter at chemists.
Antimicrobial resistance is now recognised as a global threat that has the potential to develop into an outright catastrophe. A 2014 report estimated that by 2050, AMR would be responsible for up to 10 million deaths a year and cost the global community $100 trillion.
Antimicrobial resistance looms on the horizon, threatening a world where once again, a simple operation such as an appendix removal could become extremely dangerous. Even now, an estimated 700 000 deaths globally can be attributed to AMR each year and the number is rising fast.
The WHO has now issued a global strategy which invites policy makers around the globe to take action and coordinate a joint approach to help contain the risk. Developing nations with need to focus on regulating their drugs markets so that overuse and misuse can be reined in. All countries will need to invest in alternative treatments. Vaccination is the best weapon in our armoury to protect vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly. And of course, on an individual level, we must all take care to protect our health, keep good hygiene and- when we do take antibiotics- take them responsibly.