By Christina Tran, Pharmacy Resident, Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2 million people each year are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria with at least 23,000 deaths as a result. These numbers are alarming and raise concerns to health care professionals.
At least 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in outpatient settings are unnecessary, and this unnecessary prescribing and overuse of antibiotics are threatening public health with the risk of creating a superbug, a bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics.
What’s the Cause of Antibiotic Resistance?
Bacteria can be found everywhere, including in our own body. Some bacteria are beneficial such as those in the stomach that helps the body to digest and absorb nutrients. Some bacteria, on the other hand, can be harmful and cause infections.
Antibiotics are medications used to treat infections caused by bacteria. The first antibiotic placed on the market was penicillin, which was discovered in 1928 and introduced into the market in 1943. A handful of antibiotics have been developed since the introduction of penicillin, but the development of resistance also rises with each new antibiotic.
When the antibiotic called methicillin was brought into the market in 1960, it did not take long to have a resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococcus aureus refers to a bacteria that can cause infections such as skin infections, pneumonia, and bloodstream infections.
According to the CDC, Staphylococcus aureus resistance to methicillin was identified in 1962, just two years after the antibiotic methicillin was introduced. This means that if someone is infected with Staphylococcus aureus with resistance to methicillin, then a different antibiotic needs to be used since methicillin would not work. Antibiotics that work in the same way as methicillin to kill bacteria would also not work in this case.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (also known as MRSA) still remains a growing problem today as it is prevalent not only in hospitals but also in the community.
A simple explanation about how resistance occurs in bacteria is to think of it as survival of the fittest. Each time an antibiotic is given, there is the possibility that there is a bacteria that is able to avoid being killed.
There are several possible reasons for this. One reason is that that bacteria is able to produce a substance that is able to inactivate the antibiotic. Another reason is that the bacteria forms a biofilm or a shield against antibiotics to prevent them from breaking or entering their cell wall.
How Can We Prevent Superbugs?
- Use antibiotics appropriately. New antibiotics are not being developed fast enough compared to the rate of bacteria resistance. Antibiotics should be conserved so that when someone presents with a severe bacterial infection it can be treated.
- Antibiotics are not always the answer. Some bacterial infections may not need antibiotics as our body’s immune system can fight against them.
- Antibiotics do not work for viral infections like the common cold and would only give bacteria the opportunity to find ways to protect itself from the antibiotic.
- When antibiotics are prescribed, make sure that they are taken correctly. Missing doses or stopping too early can allow the harmful bacteria to build resistance.
- Use good personal hygiene practices such as washing hands, being up to date on vaccinations, staying home when sick, and covering your cough to help prevent yourself from becoming sick.