Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Antibiotic resistance: How superbugs pose a huge threat to public health

Olivia Richter discusses the threat superbugs pose to society

Antibiotic resistance: How superbugs pose a huge threat to public health

Last April, I, like most other AU students, was in the thick of second semester and gearing up for final exams. I was not getting enough sleep and spent long hours in the library. The last thing I needed was to get sick, but as life tends to go, that is exactly what happened. I started to notice my eyes becoming bloodshot and my nose running constantly throughout the day and night. Around the third day of feeling sick, I woke up and looked in the mirror to see my left eye completely red and swollen. I knew it was time to see a doctor, so I paid a visit to the AU Health Center. There, I was told I had conjunctivitis and was prescribed an antibiotic.

“Make sure you take the whole dose, even if you start to feel better,” the doctor informed me as she called in the prescription to Rite Aid.

A week later, my eyes were no longer red. My nose was still a bit sniffly, but I was feeling worlds better than I had been. I looked at the bottle of amoxicillin with suspicion. Why should I put any more foreign substances in my body than I needed to in order to feel better? I’ll admit, I can at times be a little irrational when it comes to medicine. I can eat gummy worms or McDonald’s without too much thought, but I tend to become holistic and “my body is a temple” when it comes to taking pills. So, I threw the week’s remaining worth of antibiotics away, thinking I was doing my body a favor.

In truth, by not finishing the antibiotics, I was allowing the strongest bacteria living in my sinuses to survive. These bacteria were the ones that had managed to hold onto this long, while the weaker cells were killed off by the amoxicillin. Now, the strongest cells would do as cells do and divide, allowing the strongest genes to be passed along. I was unknowingly contributing to what theCenter for Disease Control has labeled one of the top five threats to public health: antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotics have been used to treat infections for 70 years. Though they have treated and saved countless individuals suffering from infectious diseases, their widespread use and, in many cases overuse, has given bacteria opportunities to evolve a resistance to many of them. The more an antibiotic is used, the less effective it can become because there are more chances for the bacteria to become resistant.

In the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria a year and as a result at least 23,000 people die. Shockingly, 70 percent of antibiotics in the United States are given to farm animals, not humans. Worldwide, that number is closer to 50 percent. Antibiotics are fed to farm animals to promote faster growth and to compensate for animals’ nasty living conditions. Their use is not restricted to sick animals; small doses are given just as frequently to healthy ones as a form of disease prevention.

There are several public health organizations, including the American Public Health Association, Infectious Disease Society of America and the World Health Organization, that have called for significant reductions in the use of antibiotics in livestock. Why? For the same reason my doctor told me to take the full dosage of amoxicillin when I had conjunctivitis. Feeding antibiotics to farm animals will kill much of the bacteria they are exposed to, but will not kill all of it. The remaining bacteria, termed ‘superbugs’ by the public health and food industries, will proliferate. These are the antibiotic resistant bacteria and they pose a great danger to humans.

Superbugs living in farm animals can be transferred to humans through the food we eat, like beef and poultry. They can also infect farm workers who transport them elsewhere. Once they infect humans, they can cause diseases that are nearly impossible to kill. If the antibiotics we have available to us aren’t effective against an infectious disease because of antibiotic resistant superbugs, there is little to do but try to find new antibiotics that bacteria have not developed resistance to. This is a complicated, difficult and expensive process that many scientists around the world are currently working hard to fix.

Overprescription and overuse of antibiotics is the major cause of antibiotic resistance. Regulations for the use of antibiotic in farm animals are not only necessary but potentially life saving. Greater awareness of this threat to public health is necessary in order to create change. As we gear up for another final exam season full of inevitably sleepless nights, getting sick is an unfortunate but real possibility. Though ideally it won’t happen anytime soon, the next time your doctor prescribes you an antibiotic to fight off an infection, remember why it is you need to finish taking your prescription even after you feel better.

Olivia Richter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and a columnist for The Eagle.

orichter@theeagleonline.com


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