Published On: Thu, Jun 5th, 2014

The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Antibiotics

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AntibioticsAntibiotics are considered to be among the greatest achievements in modern medicine. Penicillin, for example, has saved millions of live since its discovery in 1928, as the drug was able to treat potentially fatal illnesses like pneumonia or typhoid fever that had cost countless lives in the past. Yet, overusing antibiotics can have serious consequences. If antibiotics are frequently prescribed to treat common illnesses, they become less effective and may lead to the creation of resistant superbugs.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that half of prescribed antibiotics are unnecessary. A CDC study conducted in 2010 found that 36% of hospitalized patients were prescribed the powerful antibiotic vancomycin without testing or for too long. Moreover, almost 40% were treated with antibiotics for such mild ailments like urinary tract infections. The findings also showed that 22% of patients were treated with antibiotics for lung infections.

The major concern regarding the overuse of antibiotics is the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a skin infection caused by a specific strain of staph bacteria that only used to affect hospitalized people. Now, a newer form of MRSA is infecting healthy people as well. There are 80,000 cases of MRSA each year, with 11,000 people dying from the infection, according Carrington.edu. In total, more than 2 million Americans get ill from antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 of them die.

Another concern surrounding antibiotics is the use of these drugs in our food. A whooping 80% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to livestock to treat infection and prevent disease among the animals. However, this pervasive practice leads to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from animals to humans. These bacteria develop in the animal’s guts and infect humans if they eat undercooked/poorly prepared meat. Another way to transmit these bacteria is through animal feces exposed to food crops by means of fertilizer or water. A recent salmonella outbreak linked to chicken involved strains of salmonella Heidelberg resistant to commonly used antibiotics, infecting hundreds of people.

There have been efforts in the U.S. and in other countries to reduce and/or phase out the use of antibiotics. In Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, for instance, farm animals no longer receive the growth-promoting antibiotic avoparcin, which has led to a decrease of 9% in fecal colonization of vancomycin-resistant enterococci. However, a decline in the use of antibiotics typically also means a rise in animal illness and thus, a rise in human illness. Furthermore, the discontinuation of antibiotics among farm animals can cause an increase in production costs, among other things.

While the overuse of antibiotics poses serious risks to our health and needs to be addressed, a world without antibiotics would be much more terrifying. For example, 90% of children infected with bacterial meningitis would die prior to the introduction of antibiotics, while nowadays, 10% of children infected with the disease die. Hence, antibiotics so far remain the most efficient method to treat bacterial infections.

Monica Gomez is a health and healthcare writer. She helped contribute to following infographic.

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