The discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming is undoubtedly one of the biggest medical breakthroughs in history. It has saved an estimated 200 million lives to date.
Nevertheless, the development of penicillin came with a health warning from Fleming himself. He believed that exposing microbes to non-lethal doses of antibiotics could promote drug resistance.
But what is antibiotic resistance? How could it leave us vulnerable to future pandemics? We take a look at the answers.
Myth 1: Antibiotics Cure All Ills
Penicillin is a wonder drug, saving millions of lives around the world since its release to the general public in the 1940s. However, antibiotics do have their limitations.
These drugs don’t work against Ebola. Antibiotics won’t make the flu go away. They can’t even cure the common cold.
Infections are either bacterial or viral in nature. Though bacterial and viral infections can trigger similar symptoms—such as fever, coughing, sneezing, vomiting, and fatigue—they are caused by fundamentally distinct organisms.
Bacteria are single-cell microbes. They have existed for 3.5 billion years, surviving in a diverse range of environments, from extreme heat to extreme cold, and even radioactive waste. Most bacteria are neutral, meaning they do not harm us or help us.
Some bacteria are beneficial. Bacteria help us to digest food, fight off disease-causing microbes, provide essential nutrients, and even fight cancer cells. Scientists estimate that less than 1 percent of bacteria cause illness.
Virus microbes are smaller. They feature a nucleus of genetic material surrounded by a protein shell. Unlike bacteria, which thrive on virtually every surface around us, viruses need a living host. They reproduce by attaching themselves to the cells of another living organism. Once attached, viruses reprogram host cells to generate new virus cells until the host cells burst and die. Viruses can sometimes turn host cells into cancerous cells.
Most viruses cause disease. Viruses are specific about which cells they attack. Certain viruses target vital organs like the liver or lungs, whereas others attack the blood. Some viruses attack bacteria.
Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections. They are completely ineffective at killing viruses. This is why vaccination is so important to protect us against viral diseases like measles, polio, and influenza.
Myth 2: Antibiotic Resistance Reduces the Body’s Response to Medication
Antibiotic resistance is not something that develops within the human body, but rather in the bacteria themselves. Following exposure to antibiotics, some bacteria have been shown to adapt. Adaptation is an evolutionary response to protect an organism from future attack.
The World Health Organization cites antibiotic resistance as one of the greatest threats to health, development, and food security faced by mankind today. Antibiotic resistance has made a number of infections harder to treat, such as: gonorrhea, pneumonia, salmonellosis, and tuberculosis.
Myth 3: Antibiotic Resistance Only Occurs in People Who Overuse Antibiotics
World Health Organization points out that repeated exposure to antibiotics can spur resistance in bacteria. However, anyone can become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, even someone who has never taken antibiotics before.
Unfortunately, 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, with 23,000 of these cases proving fatal. The US Government set up a Presidential Advisory Council in 2015 with the sole aim of tackling bacterial resistance.
Myth 4: Antibiotic Resistance Is a New Development
Antibiotic resistance, or bacterial resistance as it is more accurately called, is universal. The first recorded incidences date back to Ancient Egypt. As our awareness and understanding of the role of bacteria in human health has increased, we have come to recognize a complex problem that has always been present.
Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in the early 20th century was inarguably the most important breakthrough in medical history. Nevertheless, antibiotics have always occurred naturally. We know now that ancient man used primitive forms of antibiotics. The red soils of Jordan, which locals applied historically to treat skin infections, have been found to have antibiotic properties.
Bacteria is highly dynamic: it evolved over centuries. Human understanding was just too limited to recognize it. Today, the explosion of research into bioinformatics has made us acutely aware of bacterial resistance and the threat it poses, not just to mankind, but to life on earth as we know it.
Myth 5: There Is Nothing We Can Do to Lower the Risk of Antibiotic Resistance
The first step in tackling this growing problem is to address public attitudes and improve understanding. Antibiotics are not the “cure all” many believe them to be. Medical practitioners are becoming increasingly aware of the need to prescribe them with care.
Antibiotics do not work against viral infections such as colds and other ailments, much as we may wish it were so. Every time we use an antibiotic unnecessarily, we promote bacterial resistance. This reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics, not just for ourselves, but for everyone.
As David Weiss of Emory University points out, if we don’t address the issue now, we could find ourselves in an era of total antibiotic resistance. Were this the case, even a small scrape could lead to a life-threatening infection.