There are two causes of resistance. At a community level, the billions of scripts for antibiotics being written every year, combined with the heavy use of antibiotics to boost production in farming, are giving rise to more and more bugs that are resistant. The more antibiotics are used in the community, whether in humans or animals, the more opportunities bacteria have to evolve to protect themselves from the active agents in those antibiotics.
The second cause is individual resistance that we build within our own bodies. Most common bacterial illnesses like respiratory and urinary tract infections are caused by bacteria that we have living in our bodies all the time – all of us walk around with a “zoo” of different bacteria in our bodies, and only rarely do they make us ill.
If you take a course of antibiotics to treat an infection, says Professor Del Mar, the bacteria normally living in our bodies can become resistant: as bacteria affected by the antibiotics you are taking die, the field opens up for those that are resistant to take over. Even worse, they can pass that resistance on to other bacteria due to their ability to “mate” with other species of bacteria, interact with viruses and pick up “free” DNA from their environment. If you then become really sick with an infection, first line antibiotics may not work.
After a second operation and a final, fifth drug – a very strong antibiotic that had to be administered intravenously for several weeks – Levi made a full recovery. But his case is a sobering reminder of why we all need to be concerned about antibiotic resistant bugs.
Researchers worldwide are working frantically to overcome the problem. The journal Nature this year published a breakthrough by a US team that has managed to create a new antibiotic made of previously uncultured microorganisms taken from the soil. Called teixobactin, it is the first new antibiotic in 30 years and could herald the development of a whole new generation to which bacteria are not yet resistant.
Governments are also trying to tackle the issue by regulating the use of antibiotics in animals, increasing surveillance of resistant strains of bacteria and by making the community aware of the problem.
Meanwhile, community action (see below) remains the simplest and best hope to help keep our current stock of antibiotics functional for at least the near future.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Antibiotics
Combatting antibiotic resistance is a problem for all of us. If you think you need antibiotics, here is what you should consider:
1. Wait a couple of days Our bodies are designed to kill off most infections naturally. Most of us rush to get antibiotics as soon as we are in pain, but Dr Curotta says that in most cases, antibiotics reduce discomfort just by one day. Control the symptoms with paracetamol for two or three days and if you’re still not getting better, then consider an antibiotic. (In children under two, you should seek medical attention as soon as you see any sign of infection.)
2. Take the pills as instructed It’s very important that you don’t take antibiotics for longer than you need to. Finish the course and never take antibiotics that were prescribed to someone else or for a different illness.
3. Don’t ask for antibiotics for colds and flu Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. Most common colds and flu are caused by a virus and cannot be cured by antibiotics. It is only when you have a secondary bacterial infection, for example of the sinuses or chest, that you may need to consider an antibiotic.
4. Avoid spreading infection Like all germs, antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be spread through the community due to poor hygiene. If you’re sick, be conscientious about washing your hands.
5. Prevention is best Avoid colds and flu by dosing up on foods with anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, such as vegetables, green tea and fresh fruits and vegetables.