We can ill afford to live in a ‘post-antibiotic world’

The News TribuneSeptember 22, 2013 

Does that headline frighten you?

It should, because that’s the direction we might be heading. In a new report, the Centers for Disease Control warns of “potentially catastrophic consequences” if the world fails to take action against the threat already being posed by increasingly antibiotic-resistent bacteria – the so-called “superbugs.”

The CDC estimates that – at a minimum – more than two million Americans are sickened every year by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and 23,000 are killed. The scariest superbugs are CRE, the “nightmare bacteria,” and C-diff. Both are primarily found in hospitals and other health-care settings and account for most of the deaths.

The CDC fears that the growing ineffectiveness of antibiotics could interfere with such routine surgical procedures as joint replacements, transplants, cancer treatment and the use of such invasive devices as catheters because of the risk of untreatable infection.

Antibiotics like penicillin started being widely used in the 1940s to treat everything from strep throat to bubonic plague. But through overuse and misuse, some have become ineffective.

Much of the problem is attributed to doctors overprescribing antibiotics and patients failing to complete the prescribed dosage – which kills some of the bacteria but allows some to survive, becoming stronger and more resistant to the medicine. Eventually the bacteria evolves to the point that antibiotics can no longer kill it.

The CDC says that half of the antibiotics used by humans are unnecessary, but doctors often prescribe them because patients demand it. Doctors need to do more to educate patients about the risks involved with unnecessary antibiotics. If patients truly do need them, doctors and pharmacists should impress on them how important it is to take all of the pills.

The CDC also warned that routine use of antibiotics in the farm animal industry is a major contributor to the problem. At least 70 percent of all antibiotics in the United States are used to bulk up farm animals so that they can be slaughtered sooner or to counter diseases that develop in crowded feedlots. Again, low dosages help the bacteria develop resistance to the antibiotics.

Congress, caving to the livestock and pharmaceutical industries, has balked at giving the Food and Drug Adminstration authority to scale back use of antibiotics in food animals. The CDC’s new report reflects the folly of that inaction and the need for more proactive strategies.

That’s what lawmakers must do. But how can the average person help fight the rise of superbugs?

The CDC recommends taking such preventive measures as immunizations, safer food preparation and more hand-washing. And stop pressuring your doctor for unnecessary antibiotics.

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