The Future is Frightening

We have been living in the safest time in history. I’m not talking wars, which are within our control, sort of, but illness and infection.

If we had been living in the early part of the 20th Century, and contracted pneumonia for example, the is every chance that it would have been fatal, but even in 1946, Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, warned about the overuse of antibiotics causing resistance.

Do you like our little bacteria animation?

If only this was true to life. Our little bug has been splattered by the hammer. No chance of resistance there-it’s dead. However in life we attempt to “splatter” real bacteria by the use of antibiotics.

The problem, to put it very simply,  if a few million bacteria living and infecting a host, are hit with an antibiotic, in the past most of the bacteria would have been killed, and the patient recovered. As time went on however, the bacteria would become less susceptible to the antibiotic and less bacteria would be killed. The ones remaining would have “beaten” the antibiotic, and when reproducing, passed on this resistance to their offspring. The resistance therefore would become more common and the antibiotic becomes less effective. TB, formerly called consumption, was a huge problem 100 years ago. In the western world, this has been almost eliminated by a combination of improved living conditions and effective antibiotics. However, poorer living conditions in the third world, has resulted in the survival of the disease, and now it’s back in developed countries, and is resistant to many drugs. Highly infections, it can be transmitted by a sneeze or cough, and even with the best medical care is proving 50% fatal.

Our old enemy E.coli, is proving resistant to carbapenems, one of the few antibiotics currently effective in it’s treatment.

Every antibiotic we use was discovered before 1984, so why are there no new antibiotics in the pipeline?

To develop a new antibiotic, it can take decades of research, which is currently funded by private companies who are reluctant to undertake this massive costly commitment when there are easier ways to pull in funding.

Antibiotics in agriculture

Today the use of antibiotics in agriculture is widespread. Antibiotics are used to prevent and treat infection in birds and animals to promote growth, and are also used to suppress bacteria on fruit and crops improving yields. Some of this air-borne spray may also be blown onto neighbouring fields and crops, further spreading, bacterial resistance. Eating the treated meat and consuming the crops, transfers this resistance to humans, and reports now suggest the common pathogens Salmonella and E.coli are now much more threatening to us than they were previously.

What can we do?

Firstly, we must reduce the levels of antibiotics used in agriculture, and tight controls should be established on all food imports. No antibiotic should be issued without prescriptions and controls. This extends to human prescriptions. As we have said, antibiotics have saved lives but instead of being a last resort, they have become a first resort. Unless very young, elderly or otherwise vulnerable, antibiotics should not be prescribed. In normally young healthy or middle aged people, most infections will be cured by the body’s immune system in a little time. There is no need for antibiotics. Additionally, if the problem is caused by a virus, as in colds or flu, antibiotics will not work anyway. Yet millions flock to the doctor at the first sneeze, and in their part, doctors often give them antibiotics “to keep them quiet”. It has to stop.

No antibiotics then, so what can we do? The answer is with prevention until such a time as new drugs are found. Prevention means cleanliness and hygiene, both with the production of food on the farm, to reduce, to reduce the levels of bacteria, in food preparation, in factories, hospitals, and restaurants and our homes. This means vigilance in our food hygiene and in rigorous cleaning regimes.

Bacteria should be reduced to safe levels which will demand in depth cleaning and sanitisation and food safety rules followed.

In their report issued a few days ago,the world health organisation said that research into drugs is happening but “unless they are sparingly used resistance will build to the new drugs as well.”

Well, the autumn is well on its way and with it an increase in ‘flu. I’m told it comes from down under – Australian ‘flu, so what should you do? Rest, fluids and keep warm, and as long as you are not in a vulnerable category – no antibiotics unless there is a very good reason. Good luck.