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What to do about Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria?

Updated on January 31, 2013
Mycobacterium tuberculosis
Mycobacterium tuberculosis | Source

Yikes, Superbugs!

Antibiotic-resistant strains of Superbugs (bacteria) are evolving as we speak--for several reasons. First, huge quantities of antibiotics are routinely given to livestock that we use as food. In the short term, this practice increases profit margins for Agribusiness. Any factory farm manager who chooses to be prudent in his antibiotic usage will find himself at a disadvantage, because his animals will grow a bit slower than those of his competitors.

But we're also shooting Public Health in the foot.

On balance, the practice of megadosing our livestock with antibiotics is uneconomic--even if it is consistent with Free Market Economics.

A second problem is patient compliance. Many years ago, I had some dental work done. I was given a prescription for an antibiotic, together with instructions about how much to take, and when to take it.

I took it for a few days, and after no infections developed, I threw out the meds. Like most people, I was not aware of the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If a few of the beasties had survived, I would have had a new problem. The surviving bacteria would have developed some resistance to the antibiotic that I had been taking. And I would have needed to switch to a different, more expensive antibiotic.

If I had passed on the Superbug to another person without his being aware of the source, the standard antibiotic treatment would have been less effective--perhaps even ineffective. Then his physician would need to switch to a Plan B antibiotic. The upshot: His infection would last longer than it would if I had simply followed the written directions on my antibiotic prescription.

Third, some patients with viral infections pester their physicians for antibiotics--even though these medications have no known antiviral effects. And many doctors cave in to the unreasonable requests.

A fourth Superbug problem is related to HIV/AIDS. Like immunosuppressive drugs that prevent the rejection of transplanted organs, HIV can compromise the immune system to the extent that HIV patients are much more vulnerable to infections of all kinds. Standard courses of antibiotics will not necessarily knock out the opportunistic infections. As a result, HIV patients are more likely to spread infectious, antibiotic-resistant bacteria than people with normal immune systems.

Even with judicious use of antibiotics, most harmful bacteria will eventually adapt. The inevitable result is Superbugs.

One of the Superbugs in the pipeline is multi-drug-resistant Tuberculosis. In the Bad Old Days, before antibiotics, TB killed an awful lot of people. It's still a problem in developing countries, where ordinary people do not have sufficient access to baseline health care. And TB is poised to make a comeback in the developed countries. That's one of several reasons why unrestricted immigration to the developed countries is not practical.

Another Superbug concern is MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). This is a big problem in hospitals, nursing homes, and other institutional settings.

Invasive non-typhoidal salmonella (iNTS) is antibiotic resistant. And some strains of Gonorrhea are resistant to penicillin. Here's a recent headline:

Scientists find new superbug spreading from India

Houston, we have a problem.

Feedlot in Texas
Feedlot in Texas | Source
Charles Darwin, the greatest thinker in the history of evolutionary biology.
Charles Darwin, the greatest thinker in the history of evolutionary biology. | Source

Research and rotation

There are a few things that governments of the developed countries can do about Superbugs. First, we need more government regulation of antibiotics given to livestock. Western European governments--especially Denmark--are more serious about managing the problem of antibiotic overuse in farm animals than we are. Of course, they don't have 100% compliance.

Nevertheless, it's better than the American laissez-faire approach. It's unfortunate that the same European governments are so inept at managing their economic problems. Oh well, being part smart is better than being totally brain-dead.

Second, governments should subsidize research on new antibiotics, on a Cost Plus basis.This was one of the proactive cost-containing measures that the American government took during World War II. Defense contractors were allowed to make a reasonable profit, but there weren't a whole lot of $400 hammers--I mean 'hand-held impact devices'--at that time. In the spirit of Cost Plus, there should be no new antibiotic patents or other corporate welfare for pharmaceutical companies who research new antibiotics on the government's dime.

Why have such a subsidy in the first place? Because the necessary level of research on new antibiotics is simply not being done. Presumably, because the projected profits are too small.

When the inevitable diminishing returns hit older antibiotics, they should be completely withdrawn from the world market for many years. Eventually, the older antibiotics could be reintroduced. But I'm not sure how long the waiting period would be. 10 years? 30 years? 100 years? What's my rationale for reintroduction?

Resistance to Antibiotic X--in the absence of environmental Antibiotic X--is excess genetic baggage for bacteria. In the long term, Antibiotic X-resistant bacteria living in an Antibiotic X-free world will have a small genetic survival handicap. The bacteria that are NOT trundling around with antibiotic 'armor' will be slightly leaner and meaner.

Given sufficient time, the latter bacteria will out-reproduce the strains with resistance to Antibiotic X, until the populations of the former strain are essentially extinct. This isn't rocket science. We're talking Evolutionary Biology 101 here. At this point, Antibiotic X will have regained 99% of its full former potency--temporarily.

Thus, it's not necessary to mothball old antibiotics indefinitely. Continued research, coupled with a rational rotation routine, is a vital long-term strategy.

Copyright 2013 by Larry Fields


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    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Hi alexadry,

      About the leftover antibiotics. I've never had a physician or dentist explain why I needed finish ALL of these meds. It was not obvious at the time. Compliance is a communication problem--and not lazy patient issue.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 4 years ago from USA

      Super bugs worry me. I'm happy to live in the country in a rural area and have limited contact with humans other than some clients and dogs. When I worked for the vet, it was astounding how many clients asked if they could give their sick dogs their leftover antibiotics. Turns out, most people never finished their antibiotics as directed by their doctors and that's why they wanted to try giving them to their sick dogs.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Nell,

      I'm glad that you're beginning to feel better. And it's nice to hear from you, as always.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

      Great explanation Larry, I had forgotten that only taking part of the antibiotics meds could cause it to not work properly because it had become immune. Its a scary thought that the one thing that keeps many people going is actually not going to work anymore, great info, and thanks for your support on my hub, feel a bit better now thanks!

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Wilbart. Thanks for your comment.

    • profile image

      Wilbart26 4 years ago

      Hi there that's an alarming problem at present. The world is changing, the environment is rapidly changing as well as the potent bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi are rapidly evolving. I am a private researcher/scientist here in our country. Recently, me, my wife and her friends conducted a research on a huge facility in our area (I will not mentioned the name for privacy purposes). The said facility is huge and a well maintained hospital and university. My team researched about the existence of potent bacteria in a sterile environment, our job is prove if it is possible for such bacteria to exist even if the place followed the standard procedure for infection control and the place is well maintained and everyday sterilized with high end equipment. We are surprised for what we discovered, p.pneunmia and s.areus and other potent bacteria exists in the place. And the most terrifying of all is that those bacteria are all antibiotic resistant, our biologist and med-technologist in the team is shocked with the results. Yes, they are resistant to antibiotics and they are getting stronger and stronger as the day "remember that! Day" goes by, of course everyday we use different antibiotics and the last that we did to kill it is to create our own antibiotic. We are successful, however the drug is not yet tested to humans that is why we are not using it for humans. But the drug is safe I think because they all came from medicinal herbs. A week after I've been infected with S.areus as well as our kids. But we are glad our immune system is strong enough that we only need a not so strong antibiotic for us to be cured. We suffered the S.areus infection for about 3 weeks, and trust me, it was very painful inside and out.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Leah. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Patricia,

      I'm sorry to hear about your daughter's health problem. I hope that she gets well soon.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Stephanie. Thanks for stopping by. And thanks for the share.

    • thebiologyofleah profile image

      Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Great article- nice summary of the very bad situation we have gotten ourselves into and interesting theory on how to get us out of it.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      These bugs are especially problematic for those who have compromised immune systems and are susceptible to whatever comes down the pike. Both my grandson and daughter have issues in this area. My daughter right now is at the Dr. trying to reign in an infection that began as an abscess on a tonsil and now is systemic. She has battled it for four weeks..and it is still flaring. She has many complicating factors but the bug is resistant to the drugs that have been used.

      Thanks for publishing this to make all aware.

      sending Angels to you :) ps

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      This was one of the best explanations of superbugs that I've seen. Your article was informative and interesting...and a little scary when you think of all the antibiotic resistant bacteria floating around out there! Voted up and shared!