Resistant microbes and the missing safeguard in modern medicine

Paul Hazelton

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Paul Hazelton

Antibiotics are a literal god send to modern medicine, unfortunately they — or more accurately our extravagant use of them — are leading to “superbugs.” Superbugs occur when bacteria become immune to antibiotics. This process goes as follows: We kill most of the germ with our miracle drugs, and the bit that survives, however, multiplies and is forever resistant to that specific medication. Thankfully, two weeks ago President Obama issued an executive order attempting to control their proliferation by the year 2020.

Superbugs infect approximately 2 million people in the U.S. annually, killing nearly 23,000 of them. This number has been steadily increasing for a simple reason: overuse. Of course, the general public is eager to point fingers at institutions and businesses, but the reality is, it’s just as much the public’s fault.

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For example, doctors too often over prescribe antibiotics as a one-size-fits-all solution, something patients almost never question them on. The problem is that, in many cases, it’s not bacteria at fault, but a virus, and viruses don’t respond to antibiotics. This occasionally has unintended side effects, such as vaginitis and diarrhea.  Worse yet, even when antibiotics are accurately prescribed, patients tend to hoard the leftovers and self medicate when cold season rolls around. This leads to relatively harmless germs morphing into juggernauts.

We also overuse these miracle drugs in agriculture by mixing them in with feed. This is done for two reasons: to keep livestock healthy and, to a greater extent, aid in accelerated growth. But this practice not only helps mass produce meat, it mass produces superbugs that can then hitch a ride on a steak and infect you. Again, the public is at fault. After all, we are what drives this craze. For our part, we can boycott businesses that buy from these producers and accept that the price of our next meal might go up by a dollar or two.

But one area where the general public is the sole guilty party is in the products we buy. These include soaps, earplugs, pet feeders, plastics, face wash, concrete, calculators, cutting boards, lipgloss, toothbrushes, deodorant, exedra … The list could go on for days, but the reason it’s in most of these products can be summed up in three words: no particular reason. Not only do these hyper-clean products contribute to resistance, they have also been shown to harm our immune systems’ ability to fight infections, particularly in children that grow up in these environments. The moral of the story? Read the ingredients on the back of the package.

In the end, if we as a society do nothing and rely solely on Obama’s executive order, superbugs will continue to grow in resistance and prevalence until we have used up every antibiotic in our tool box. If, or when, this occurs, medicine will be cast back into the dark ages. Organ transplants, chemotherapy, surgery and almost any infection will become potentially lethal affairs. And if that doesn’t convince you toponder this, the United Kingdom recently reported that if nothing is done to curb our current use of antibiotics or if no new medications are developed, the total annual death toll by 2050 could reach 10 million. That’s more than cancer and diabetes combined. So unless that’s what we want the future to look like, let’s chip in and limit our use of this amazing drug type.

Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @hazeltonpaul.