Drugs and Superbugs

Humans have been engaged in a never-ending arms race with one particular enemy for nearly 90 years. Any ideas who this enemy might be? If you guessed bacteria, then you are one smart cookie. The first effective antibiotics were introduced to the market in the early 20th century. Their discovery was a huge turning point in history as they became powerful weapons used to kill or suppress bacteria that cause significant illness and death among humans.

But one not-so-small problem… With the overuse of antibiotics, there has been a growing number of resistant bacteria. These “superbugs” have their own weapons that allow them to multiply and continue to cause disease even in the presence of antibiotics we once expected them to be susceptible to. Just by chance, there may be a small number of them that possess resistance. When antibiotics are inappropriately used, these existing resistant bacteria have a chance of growing to much larger numbers. Inappropriate use includes:

  • Taking an antibiotic when you’ve been infected with a virus and not bacteria.
  • Not finishing your full course of antibiotic because you feel better after a few days of taking it.
  • Overuse of “broad spectrum” antibiotics meant to be effective against a variety of bacteria as opposed to ones that specifically target the disease-causing bacteria.
  • Use of sub-therapeutic amounts of antibiotics in animal feed to promote growth of food producing animals.

As you can imagine, it’s much more challenging and costly to care for patients infected with resistant bacteria. Options for treating these patients are limited and there is currently little incentive for drug companies to pour money into research and development of new antibiotics that these resistant bacteria could be susceptible to. At this point, I’ve probably made you quite depressed. Is there any good news at all?

This past Wednesday, I attended the USG Civic Engagement Series event, “The Good, The Bad, & The Resistant: Antibiotics & Microbes”, organized by student leaders at USG. From the panel of experts, I learned that good work is being done to combat the issue of antibiotic resistance. Antimicrobial stewardship programs are in place to encourage appropriate prescribing of antibiotics by physicians. Alternatives to antibiotics, such as bacteriophages and siRNA technology, are being studied. Under development are diagnostic tests that help identify causative bacteria more rapidly so that overuse of “broad spectrum” antibiotics can be avoided. State laws are being passed to prohibit the use of antibiotics in food producing animals.

But there are things YOU can do to help as well. The importance of handwashing to prevent the spread of infection in the first place cannot be overstated. And when you have the cold or flu (neither of which are caused by bacteria), use non-drug and/or over-the-counter products to relieve your symptoms rather than ask your physician to prescribe you an antibiotic. Like any precious commodity, we want to use antibiotics sparingly, only when absolutely necessary.

Thanks for letting me stand on my pharmacy student soap box, and have a wonderful weekend!


Panel of experts, from left to right: Katie Richards, MPH; Daniel Nelson, PhD; Adrienne Ma, PharmD; Wendy Henderson, PhD, MSN, CRNP, FAAN

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