The discovery of penicillin in 1928 marked the beginning of the antibiotic era and dramatic improvements in health and medicine. With mass production of the new “wonder drug” in the 1940’s, threats from killer diseases, such as bacterial infections and pneumonia, waned. However, less than 100 years later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has sounded the alarm about the possibility of a post-antibiotic era.
That’s due to the growing menace of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or bacteria that have developed resistance to the drugs that once killed them.
Take, for example, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). When MRSA was first discovered in the 1960’s, it was largely a problem only in hospitals, where the bacteria would reproduce and spread to patients. But today the bacteria is everywhere, says Thomas J. Sandora, MD, MPH, medical director of Infection Prevention and Control at Boston Children’s Hospital. That means children and adults are being infected with MRSA outside of the hospital environment.
Invasive hospital-acquired MRSA infections declined 28 percent from 2005 through 2008. However, rates of community-acquired MRSA, which typically presents as a skin infection but also can manifest as a life-threatening invasive infection, increased over the last decade. Unfortunately, those numbers do not appear to be falling.
Although MRSA is not the only antibiotic-resistant infection, it is one the CDC classified as serious in a September report detailing the burden and threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. MRSA Survivors’ Network named October 2 World MRSA Day to raise awareness about the infection and other healthcare-acquired infections.
Emergence of antibiotic resistance
Every year, more than 2 million people in the U.S. contract antibiotic-resistant infections like MRSA, and at least 23,000 people die as a result. Estimates of the direct health care costs of antibiotic resistance in the U.S. vary, but data suggest costs may top $20 billion annually.
The path to antibiotic resistance is rapid. “Every time antibiotics are used in any setting, bacteria evolve by developing resistance. This process can happen with alarming speed,” says Steve Solomon, MD, director of CDC’s Office of Antimicrobial Resistance.
In common infections, most bacteria are susceptible to antibiotics. A few bacteria are resistant. When an antibiotic is administered, it attacks the susceptible bacteria as well as the healthy bacteria that protect the body from infection. The resistant bacteria gain strength and transfer resistance to other bacteria, which then spread from person to person by the patient or via unwashed hands, propagating antibiotic resistance. The chain is a natural evolutionary process that can be contained but not eliminated.
Given the creative capacity of bacteria, slowing the spread of antibiotic resistance and preserving the effectiveness of antibiotic medications requires a team effort, says Sandora. His advice for parents is simple and includes:
- Don’t ask for antibiotics for infections caused by viruses like colds or the flu.
- Take all doses of prescribed antibiotics and follow the directions exactly.
- Don’t save or re-use antibiotics.
- Model good hygiene for your children and encourage them to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer after eating, using the bathroom or sneezing.
“We all have a role to play in halting the spread of antibiotic resistance,” says Sandora.