Health officials around the world agree: the superbug crisis has reached the “red alert” stage.
Since the 1940s, antibiotics have dramatically reduced illness and death from infectious diseases; penicillin alone has saved about 200 million lives. But thanks to overuse in humans and animals, antibiotics are losing their power to fight bacteria.
Infections once easily treated with penicillin now require rounds and rounds of multiple antibiotics. Eventually, some bacterial strains will become untreatable, rendering C-sections, hip replacements, and chemotherapy too risky for patients.
“[Antibiotic resistance] is very serious indeed – it’s killing people around the world at the rate of hundreds of thousands of year,” cautioned one infectious disease epidemiologist. “And we all expect it to get worse if something isn’t done now.”
But what can be done?
Health officials’ top priority is development of new antibiotics, and in 2016, 193 countries signed a United Nation declaration to encourage drug research. “We need governments, the pharmaceutical industry, health professionals and the agricultural sector to follow through on their commitments to save modern medicine,” said England’s chief medical officer.
But developing new antibiotics is a long, slow, and very expensive process. It can take 10 years to bring a new drug to market and 23 years for the investment to start paying off.
The world can’t afford to sit and wait.
In the meantime, we all — governments, employers, individuals — can take immediate action to combat the superbug crisis. The strategy must be two-pronged: 1.) halting antibiotic overuse, in both humans and farm animals, and 2.) preventing infections.
Stopping Antibiotic Overuse — in Humans and Livestock
Antibiotics are useless against viral infections, such as colds, coughs, bronchitis, the flu, and many ear and sinus infections. And yet, out of habit or in response to patient demand, doctors routinely prescribe antibiotics for these conditions. In the United States, more than 30 percent of oral antibiotic prescriptions — about 47 million per year — are unwarranted, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Worldwide, medical authorities are working to halt this practice. In 2015, the U.S. government set a goal of reducing inappropriate outpatient antibiotic use by at least half by 2020, and The National Health Service of England reduced antibiotic prescriptions by 5 percent in one year and is striving for further reductions.
At the same time, behavioral scientists are studying ways of spurring doctors to stop prescribing unnecessary antibiotics, and medical organizations are educating patients to stop requesting them. As one doctor noted, it’s an uphill battle: “For some reason, faith in the body's natural ability to heal itself has waned, and everyone believes that an antibiotic is the only possible cure that could help."
Another critical strategy in the fight against superbugs: curbing antibiotic overuse in cattle, chicken, turkeys, and pigs. Two-thirds of antibiotics consumed in the European Union and 70 percent consumed in the United States are given to healthy farm animals, either to promote growth or prevent diseases common in overcrowded conditions.
This is no small problem, as antibiotic-resistant bacteria jump easily from the animals to humans, via farm workers, anyone handling raw and contaminated meat, and anyone swimming in or drinking water contaminated with animal feces.
The U.S. government, a decade behind the European Union, has finally enacted rules to limit antibiotic use in livestock. But the rules have loopholes and don’t ban all antibiotic use, and some countries have no such laws.
Retailers and consumers need to pick up the slack: Restaurants must stop selling antibiotic-laden meat, and consumers must stop buying it.
Progress is happening, albeit slowly. Chains such as Subway, McDonald’s, and In-N-Out Burger are shifting away from meat raised with antibiotics. But Olive Garden, Starbucks, and Burger King are among those receiving an “F” grade for taking no such action.
Preventing Infections That Require Antibiotics
Halting antibiotic overuse is imperative, but it’s only part of the superbug solution. We must also work to prevent the bacterial infections that have become harder to treat, as well as the viral infections that are treated inappropriately with antibiotics. After all, if fewer people show up at the doctor with a sore throat, whatever its cause, fewer antibiotics will be prescribed.
Preventing infection can be accomplished with simple measures:
- Increasing vaccination rates. Anyone with the flu is more susceptible to a superbug infection, yet flu vaccination rates in the United States hover below 45 percent for adults and are dismal in Europe as well.
- Better handwashing practices. Seventy percent of adults admits they’ve bypassed the soap in public bathrooms, and most of us don’t wash for the recommended 20 seconds. It’s important to wash with soap and warm water after coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, feeding your pet, gardening, or visiting a sick person.
- Cleaning the air. Even universal handwashing can’t contain influenza, because the virus can spread via airborne particles, which contain 8.8 times more virus than surface particles. Countless other viral and bacterial particles waft through our buildings, day and night, spreading all manner of infections. Yet today’s technology makes it easy and cost effective for employers, schools, and medical facilities to rid indoor air of these pathogens.
Superbugs won’t be vanquished any time soon, but the good news is, we’re well equipped to control the conditions that unleashed them.