The development of antibiotics was one of the great medical advancements of the 20th century. But now we're paying the price for that success. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is rising worldwide, and the number of so-called superbugs that cannot be killed even by drugs of last resort is growing. At a time of great and rapid technological development, it's hard to believe.
But, for the most part, we have only ourselves to blame.
To pacify demanding patients, doctors prescribe antibiotics when they're not needed and won't work. Patients take incorrect dosages for the wrong amount of time. Cattle and chicken on factory farms are given antibiotics to make them fatter. All of this prompts bacteria to find ways to repel ever-stronger antibiotics. Compounding the problem, it's become increasingly difficult to discover and produce new antibiotics.
Among the highly resistant bacteria are E. coli, salmonella, MRSA, supergonorrhea and a nasty bug called CRE. In India, tens of thousands of babies die each year of bacterial infections that no longer can be killed by most antibiotics. New York Giants football player Daniel Fells' season recently ended because of antibiotic-resistant MRSA. A new study finds babies who get antibiotics in their first year are more likely to be diagnosed later with asthma -- because, researchers theorize, antibiotics also kill good bacteria that minimize the risk of getting the disease.
The trend is not easy to reverse, but we must try. Doctors need to cut back on prescriptions. Farmers must use fewer antibiotics in livestock. A glimmer of hope comes from Massachusetts, where scientists came up with a new way to analyze bacteria in soil and discovered an antibiotic in dirt from Maine that killed MRSA and drug-resistant tuberculosis in mice. Whatever it takes. This is not a fight we can lose.