No, I’m not talking about giant spiders or killer bees. We’re talking “nightmare bacteria” that are resistant to most of the antibiotics that modern medicine has to offer. Public health officials warn of a world facing a post-antibiotic era, or as the R.E.M. song goes, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Only we’re not feeling so fine.
According to Centers for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden, these Gram-negative superbugs known as CRE’s will “resist most antibiotics, spread resistance to other germs and kill roughly half of the people who get bloodstream infections from them.” Ten years ago, these resistant bugs were virtually unknown in the United States. Since that time, superbug infections have spread to more than 40 states and have led to nearly two million infections, resulting in 23,000 deaths yearly.
The discovery of antibiotics transformed medicine. Initially discovered in 1928 and nicknamed the “wonder drug,” penicillin became available to treat bacterial infections among the troops during World War II. During the golden age of antibiotic development, over 150 types were discovered and infection related deaths were drastically reduced. After 1945, antibiotics were made freely available and were used as a “cure all,” generating the beginnings of antibiotic resistance. Just six years after antibiotics were first widely used, resistant strains of bacteria began to develop. In 2013, it appears the bacteria are winning.
Nobel Laureate Dr. Joshua Lederberg wrote, “The future of humanity and microbes will likely evolve as episodes of our wits versus their genes.” Unfortunately, the need for new resistant antibiotics has coincided with a reduction in antibiotic discovery programs within the pharmaceutical industry. In fact, antibiotic development has stagnated, while antibiotic resistance continues to spread like wildfire, essentially creating a “perfect storm” situation. Why is this happening when there is such a grave need for new antibiotic therapies? According to the Alliance For The Prudent Use Of Antibiotics, there are 3 reasons:
- The discovery and development of antibiotics has become scientifically more complex, more expensive and more time consuming.
- Economically, antibiotics as short course therapies, are a poor return on investment relative to other drugs that may need to be taken for the remainder of a life.
- Regulatory pathways for FDA approval are confusing and generally infeasible. Antibacterials have to be approved for the specific part of the body where the disease lies, such as the lungs or urinary tract, even though the drug is designed to kill a specific organism wherever it resides in the body.
The need for new antibiotic therapies has become dire enough for Congress to consider enacting a bill appropriately named The Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now (GAIN) Act to address economic issues and other barriers. Currently, the discovery of a new antibiotic has a net value of negative $50 million. If a new potent compound were to be developed, it would likely be used only for serious, difficult to treat infections in order to avoid overuse and limit resistance development, further limiting economic recovery for the drug companies. The disinterest for development and discovery of new antibiotics among the pharmaceutical industry is great cause for concern among doctors and hospitals who are running out of options to fight infectious diseases.
There is no question that the overuse of antibiotics by humans and their misuse as animal growth promotants has contributed to the worldwide rise in difficult to treat superbugs.
What can you do to protect yourself?
- It sounds simple, but wash, wash, wash your hands thoroughly and often and dry them well afterwards, as damp hands spread more germs. We have between 2 and 10 million bacteria between our fingertips and elbow. That number of germs on your fingertips doubles after a trip to the restroom and can stay alive for up to 3 hours.
- Cook and handle your food properly and be careful where and what you eat while traveling.
- Antibiotics are often prescribed unnecessarily for ailments caused by viruses such as respiratory infections, sore throats, and the flu. Don’t take antibiotics when you don’t absolutely need them. Start treatment only when the results of a culture indicate a need.
- If you do have to treat a bacterial infection with an antibiotic, always be sure to finish the entire prescription, even if you start to feel better after a few days of treatment.
- Make lifestyle changes needed to help you stay healthy and help you avoid hospital stays where superbugs spread rapidly.
- If you do require a hospital stay, don’t be shy about asking the staff to wash their hands before examining you.
- Taking probiotics through food or supplements may reduce your chances of illness. The more beneficial microorganisms in your gut, the harder it may be for harmful bacteria to take hold.
- Beta-glucans found naturally in yeast may help antibiotics work more effectively. Scientists believe beta glucans 1-3, 1-6 trigger an enhanced immune response enabling the body’s defense system to attack and overwhelm pathogens.
- To say that glutathione stimulates your immune system is an understatement. Although glutathione is produced by the body, many of us have a deficiency. Glutathione is a very powerful antioxidant, a master detoxifier, and is critical in helping the immune system fight infections.
- Beta-carotene found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, is converted to vitamin A by the body. Vitamin A supports a strong immune system and aids in building healthy skin, your first line of defense against bacteria.
- Green tea may boost the effectiveness of antibiotics. One of the beneficial compounds in green tea has the ability to increase “regulatory T cells” that play a key role in immune system function.