Many of us have grown up in a world in which antibiotics are prescribed for bacterial infections with minimal questions asked. You go to the doctors with a bit of a tickle in your throat and are immediately greeted by a strange bottle of off-banana tasting cure-all. Well, it would seem that these days are numbered. The issue of antibiotic resistance that has been lurking in the shadows may have somewhat crept up on us. The World Health Organisation (WHO) now warns it has become a global threat.
The principle of antibiotic resistance is that over time, due to unnecessary prescriptions and patients not finishing their courses because they ‘feel better’, bacteria become less responsive to the drugs. This arises as a result of a ‘survival of the fittest’ situation in which bacteria that are not eliminated by the course of antibiotics survive to reproduce – all progeny conferring the same resistance. A report from the WHO stated that this is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue across the entire globe and there are likely to be “devastating” effects unless urgent measures are put in place. It was reported that a number of commonly occurring and treatable diseases are becoming increasingly less manageable. For instance, E. coli urinary tract infection antibiotics are now ineffective in over 50% of cases. It is more than likely that without a long term contingency plan, there will be more and more cases of fatalities as a result of previously treatable infections and simple surgical procedures.
It appears that no significant long term plan yet exists to prevent ourselves from falling back into the dark ages. There is always the option to pour more money into new antibiotics that are effective. However, this may only be efficacious in the short term and it is more than likely that before long we would be in the same position again. Also, the development of new drugs takes a significant amount of time: it can take over 15 years for a drug to pass human clinical trials and be ready to be used. It seems that a creative alternative is required in order to tackle the issue. One that can only be achieved through increased funding into research to better understand how the resistance occurs. International cooperation is also a key factor as some countries allow over the counter receipt of antibiotics whereas others require a prescription from a medical professional. International cooperation would help to ensure that there is collaboration between the scientific community and that the issue does not worsen whilst researchers try to find the holy grail of modern medicine.
What the future will bring for us in terms of antibiotic treatments is hard to say. Hopefully the WHO report will act to stimulate some governmental appreciation for the gravity of the situation we are teetering on the edge of. For now, it is down to researchers to help preserve this golden age of antibiotics, and down to the Government to further educate the public on the concept of antibiotic resistance as well as how to better prevent infection in the first place through improved hygiene awareness.