Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Silent War

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Could the age of antibiotics be very well coming to an end? Certainly quite a few experts think so. The issue of antibiotic resistant bacteria is very real. Nearly 60 years ago, Fleming’s penicillin was hailed as a miracle drug that would keep a stranglehold on bacteria. The drugs that briefly followed penicillin would help support that illusion. Until resistant strains of bacteria started evolving and doctors were unable to save patients from peculiar bacterial infections. It was then realized that new drugs were needed as a result of the misuse and abuse of antibiotics. More recently, new synthetic antibiotics like Synercid and Zyvox have helped us gain some mileage on the resistant bacteria, but with mileage already on their odometer, how much longer will they hold out?

To fully understand the situation we must come to realize that bacteria have been around for roughly .5 billion years. Bacteria, being the oldest and perhaps toughest life forms on Earth are constantly evolving and have developed a few innovative methods for survival against antibiotics. One such method particularly effective against penicillin, involves a deactivation enzyme that affects a portion of the penicillin molecule, thus neutralizing its effectiveness. The bacteria can also alter their shape, so the antibiotic is unable to bind to the target site, essentially making itself invisible to the antibiotic. Bacteria can also fool antibiotics that attempt to stop production of enzymes vital to their survival by secreting an alternative enzyme. The alternative enzyme can produce the particular vital enzyme even in the presence of the menacing antibiotic. However, perhaps most astonishing would be a bacterium’s ability to share its genetic coding amongst other bacteria, regardless of their particular family. In other words, a non-lethal streptococci bacterium with antibiotic resistant genetic coding can pass its “immunity” to certain antibiotics to a lethal staphylococci bacterium.

Perhaps most intriguing would be the abundance of bacteria. Bacteria are everywhere; in fact, billions of bacteria are currently on your skin forming a protective layer against hostile microbes. Bacteria even comprise roughly one-twentieth of your body weight. Bacteria can be found practically everywhere from the intestinal tract where it helps aid digestion and nutrient absorption, to other areas of the body performing less notable tasks. There are three major types of gram-positive bacteria. There are Staphylococci that usually reside on the surface of the skin. Streptococci are usually found in our throat and Enterococci that usually resides in our intestinal tracts. The human immune system is usually able to systematically protect itself from these bacteria. However, in people with compromised or underdeveloped immune systems, usually the elderly or the young child serious infections can result if bacteria make their way into the wrong places. For instance, if someone gets a cut and staphylococci bacteria on the skin make their way into the cut, a potentially serious infection can result.

Although bacterial infections are supposed to be treatable, more and more bacteria, particularly types found in hospital patients, are turning up resistant to one or more antibiotics. This makes us raise the question Why? The answer according to some researchers is not far from the agriculture industry and the 4.6 million pounds of antibiotics its animals are fed. The animals are fed low-dose antibiotics to promote growth and “health”. However, the low-dose unnecessary antibiotics, are provoking resistance in bacteria found in the animals and soil they are in contact with. Studies have revealed that humans had bacteria resistant to various antibiotics in their intestines as a result of consuming contaminated meat. These harmless bacteria can, in the event of an infection, transfer their resistant antibiotic genetic coding to the infecting bacteria. By giving farm animals low-dose antibiotics, we are essentially vaccinating the bacteria. Unless the agriculture lobbyists release their stranglehold on Washington, the future looks grim. Aside from the agriculture industry, humans also can partake their share of the blame. Poor hygienic habits of hospital staff and consumers of anti-bacterial soaps which claim to kill .% of bacteria, possibly leaving behind 0.1% of the strongest most resistant bacteria to thrive and replicate at their leisure. And last, but by far not least, would be patients who do not finish their antibiotic prescription, usually because they start feeling better. And doctors who prescribe antibiotics for viral infections to give in to patients demands and protect themselves legally in case of misdiagnosis. These patients and doctors are essentially mimicking the agriculture industry by immunizing bacteria to antibiotics as well.

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The issue of super-bugs must be taken seriously and appropriate measures must be enacted to prevent resistance to antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance has been occurring for quite some time and is currently getting worse. The issue is important to society, as antibiotics are crucial in curing bacterial infections. Regardless, unless new antibiotics are produced and we stop immunizing bacteria through misuse and abuse of antibiotics, the future does not look too promising.

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