March 30, 2012 § 1 Comment
Antibiotics are a class of drugs designed to eliminate bacteria and cure bacterial infections–such as appendicitis, tuberculosis, sinus infections, pneumonia, syphilis and scarlet fever. However, despite their sweeping benefits, antibiotics are quite fickle and have their detriments. In a NYTimes article last year, Jane R. Brody summed up the problem when she stated that, “antibiotics are frequently misused — overprescribed or incorrectly taken by patients… As a result, lifesaving antibacterial drugs lose effectiveness faster than new ones are developed to replace them.” Or, as Shaikh mentions in her book, “if [antibiotics] are used incorrectly, bacteria becomes resistant to them. This happens when someone takes antibiotics for an illness not caused by bacteria, or when a patient fails to finish the full course of antibiotics that is prescribed. The misuse kills the bacteria that are easily affected by antibiotics, leaving the stronger bacteria to multiply and outbreed the weak ones. As a result, more and more bacteria are resistant to antibiotics.”
According to the CDC, this creeping phenomenon of antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing public health problems. One estimate suggests that our current antibiotics could cease to work in as little as 10 years “completely” (Shaikh).
I didn’t know these particulars regarding antibiotics until just recently…and my ignorance had ramifications.
During the exam period of my Master’s degree, I was unfortunate enough to come down with bronchitis first, and then with some strange, drowse-enducing illness that caused all my glands and eyelids to swell far beyond normal measure. At the doctor’s office I was quickly prescribed an antibiotic, and sent on my way. Five days later I deemed the antibiotic unuseful, and stopped taking it. I returned to the doctor’s office a week later with worsened symptoms, and was prescribed yet another antibiotic. Once again, the same process ensued. And again. Finally I was prescribed a fourth antibiotic, to which I had an immediate allergic reaction. That’s when I swore off the drugs for this illness.
Two weeks later however, burdened with studies and falling behind, I was still sick. Using webmd (not recommended), I diagnosed myself with mononucleosis (aptly called “glandular fever” in the UK), but I wanted to be sure. I confidently prodded the doctors to run a blood test. They did so, and I was officially diagnosed with glandular fever a few days later. The doctors then informed me that “the antibiotics didn’t work because antibiotics don’t work for glandular fever.”
We see from my naive and unfortunate example that at least two cardinal rules were broken:
1. I was perscribed antibiotics for an illness not caused by bacteria, and
2. I was not instructed to finish the full dose of my antibiotic prescription–whether or not it seemed to be working
Now surely mine is an extreme example (then again, surely there are many much worse), nevertheless it highlights a social problem. Doctors must verify bacterial infections before prescribing antibiotics; they also must apprise patients of the need to finish the full cycle of prescriptions. Patients, on the other hand, must stop insisting on antibiotic prescriptions to treat every minor soar throats and tooth ache. If the current antibiotics stop working and no resistance resistant antibiotics are developed to replace them, we could face a world in rewinder, where scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and other such illnesses are once again very, very dangerous.
It may not be profitable for pharmaceutical companies to produce them now, but antibiotic will be invaluable in the future.
To learn more on an introductory level about this topic (for example, about the antibiotic resistant gene NDM-1 that has recently arisen in India, Pakistand and the UK) and other global health issues, I suggest reading What’s Killing Us (which will take about two hours) or scouring BJM for recent studies. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is also a great place of access to modern information about this issue.
This bell tolls for everyone, everywhere. We can contract bacterial illnesses quite easily.