Conservation Corner

Conserve antibiotics – save lives

Pauline Lee

The annual Get Smart About Antibiotics Week will be observed worldwide from November 16-22. Penicillin, the first antibiotic used in the world, was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming. Fleming was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945 for this miracle drug that saved countless lives from infections caused by various bacteria. Even though antibiotics kill bacteria or stop their reproduction, improper usage of antibiotics can enable bacteria to become resistant within one to 16 years, as Fleming warned could happen. Over 100 antibiotics have been commercialized, but they are all becoming less effective as bacterial resistance has built up. A bacterium can reproduce in 20 minutes but it takes at least 10 years to develop an antibiotic, so researchers cannot keep up with the increasing need for more effective antibiotics. According to a British study on antimicrobial resistance, 700,000 people will die in 2015 worldwide due to antimicrobial resistance; the toll could increase to 10,000,000 by 2050.

Antibiotics have been over-used in many different ways. Of all common illnesses, 45 percent of them can’t be helped by antibiotics; yet, antibiotics are used 50 percent of the time. Colds, most sore throats, bronchitis and many sinus or ear infections can be best treated with rest, fluids and over-the-counter products. In case of flu, use flu antiviral drugs. Antibiotics can’t cure viral infections, even though they may cure secondary infections from fungi and parasites. Over-the-counter availability of antibiotics in many other countries has led to their rampant use. There is no regulation of the use of antibiotics in agriculture; farmers buy possibly 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. They are used for farm animals, aqua culture and fruit orchards, because animals grow fatter with antibiotics. No wonder bacteria have developed strong resistance to many antibiotics to become superbugs which can no longer be eliminated by common antibiotics.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that infections caused within healthcare institutions by these superbugs will rise by 10 percent over the next five years, from 310,000 to 340,000 in the U.S. This rise can be reversed, if we all work together to keep infections from being transported from one place to another, eliminate unnecessary antibiotic use by farmers and the general population, and follow doctor’s prescriptions for antibiotic use in quantity and duration period to ensure infecting bacteria are exterminated. During pre-antibiotic days, people even died from simple infections caused by an unintentional cut on the skin surface. The post-antibiotic era of the past 70 years has shown fast development of superbugs. Our society has made other significant behavioral changes, such as seat belt usage, to create new social norms. Let’s all get smart about using antibiotics only when absolutely needed to treat bacterial infections, especially as another winter flu/cold season approaches!