You begin to notice a burning feeling when you go to the bathroom. You think to yourself, “Self, I should go to the doctor and get this checked out.” As someone in the public health field, I commend you for this hypothetical correct decision.
Anyway, you go to the doctor. Your doctor tells you that you’ve contracted gonorrhea, which is a very common STI (also known in my day as an STD, and also known before my day as a venereal disease). “No problem”, self says. “I’ll take some medicine and be good as new.”
But there is a problem, your doctor says. For years, people have taken antibiotics for bacterial infections such as gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and strep throat. Now, your doctor tells you there are no antibiotics left for you to take.
In this day and age, this scenario may sound like science fiction. Being able to take antibiotics for ailments like strep throat and certain STDs has become so common that we don’t think anything of it.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Unfortunately the saying holds true for bacteria as well. Since antibiotics have been introduced into western medicine, the bacteria that were exposed to these antibiotics – but survived – grew stronger and are now resistant to that antibiotic. How did we get to this point? Let’s back up a bit and look at some history.
A Little History
Bacteria have been around for waaaay longer than we have. To put it simply, it’s their world and we’ve just living in it. In fact, humans have evolved to incorporate bacteria into our colon, which help with digestion and our immune system. We NEED bacteria to survive. However, we don’t have to look far into our past, in a time without widespread knowledge and use of antibiotics, to see how deadly bacteria can be to humans.
Yersinia pestis, also known as the plague, has been responsible for many deadly epidemics throughout human history. In fact, Y. pestis was responsible for killing about one-third of the entire European population between 1347 and 1353. Tuberculosis was, and still is, a very common bacterial infection. Known as “consumption”, tuberculosis was one of the leading public health issues of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, in the 19th century, 25% of all deaths were caused by Tuberculosis. It’s still the 8th most common cause of death worldwide.
Penicillin, the Wonder Drug
Alexander Fleming is credited with “discovering” the world’s first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928. I only say “discovering” in quotation marks because, like lots of great discoveries, it wasn’t exactly what he had set out to do. Quite by accident, he discovered a mold that, because of his untidy lab, had been left to grow close to some E. coli cultures. He noticed that the moldy fungus had killed the cultures it had invaded. After going through the process of purification, penicillin was available for mass distribution in 1945.
Suddenly, with this new wonder drug, bacterial infections that had plagued us for centuries were becoming a thing of the past. I’m 35 years old as I write this. I do not remember a time without antibiotics. It’s hard for me to imagine coming down with strep throat like I did in 2007 and not being able to take antibiotics for it. Other deadlier bacterial infections like the ones I’ve already mentioned were becoming treatable. A whole new world of medicine opened up, death rates for these infections plummeted, and then everyone lived happily ever after vanquishing the mean bacteria, right? Um, not exactly.
This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Patricia Waldron, microbiologist and blog co-author, knows a TON more about bacteria than I do. I’m an admirer from afar–they really are quite a hardy and amazing life form. They adapt easily. They reproduce at an amazing rate of speed (especially compared to us humans). Combine that with the fact that many people do not take all of their prescribed antibiotics, and you get:
- Bacteria that did not die from that antibiotic that you (mostly) took
- Bacteria that, when they reproduce, adapt to the antibiotic you took and become more resistant to that antibiotic
- You get a different infection, but the resistant bacteria that are still hanging around share their drug resistance genes with the new infection
- Bada bing, sciencey wiencey, antibiotics stop killing bacteria
On a national level, we also have the same process going on inside livestock who are fed huge quantities of antibiotics to prevent infection. Internationally, there are several countries that do no regulate the use of antibiotics. You can buy them over the counter like aspirin, or purchase them in pet stores as “fish antibiotics.”
Ok, so your infection isn’t responding to one antibiotic–just take another one. That’s exactly what we’ve been doing. But there’s another issue.
Drug companies invest a lot of time and money into drugs. They aren’t as interested in developing drugs that will not turn a profit. To be frank, there’s not a lot of money in trying to develop new antibiotics. Therefore:
Increased antibiotic resistance + Finite types of antibiotics = Rise of the drug-resistant lil’ monsters
How Much Time Do I Have – aka, When Do I Run for the Hills?
We’re already seeing drug-resistant gonorrhea and tuberculosis, along with others. For the time being, the medical field has been using powerful combinations of antibiotics. However, until we learn how to use antibiotics properly, we will always be putting ourselves in this situation.
The bottom line is that we will always be in a constant battle with bacteria, forever locked in a mutual dance of friend vs. foe.
Do you know anyone who has been affected by a drug-resistant type of bacteria? Let us know in the comments!