A new report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention bears a grim warning about deadly antibiotic-resistant fungi and bacteria, also known as superbugs. “A lot of progress has been made, but the bottom line is that antibiotic resistance is worse than we previously thought,” said Michael Craig, the CDC’s senior adviser on antibiotic resistance.
Superbugs sicken about three million people in the United States every year and kill about 35,000, almost double the agency’s previous estimate.
Antibiotic resistance evolves naturally over time. However, thanks to the way we use antibiotics, we have enabled bacteria to adapt much faster than they would otherwise. Every time a bacterium is exposed to an antibiotic, there is a chance it evolves a resistance and becomes a superbug. That’s why the CDC report urges us to conserve what antibiotics we have.
Conservation is, however, exactly the opposite of what we’ve been doing. The Food and Drug Administration reports that the U.S. uses almost 25 million pounds of antibiotics every year, and up to 70 percent of that is on agriculture. According to an article published by the Pew Charitable Trust, “Antibiotics are used in cattle, poultry, swine and other food animals not only for disease treatment in individuals, but also to stave off disease in entire herds or flocks living in crowded, unsanitary conditions.”
The World Health Organization has been warning about the untoward effects of this unnecessary usage for decades, saying in a 2002 report that “widespread use of antimicrobials for disease control and growth promotion in animals has been paralleled by an increase in resistance in those bacteria (such as Salmonella and Campylobacter) that can spread from animals, often through food, to cause infections in humans.”
The overuse of antibiotics isn’t just a problem in animals. Humans are regularly given unnecessary antibiotics as well. A majority of the infections we deal with every day, such as the flu or the common cold, are viral rather than bacterial and antibiotics do nothing to help with them. For viral infections, the best medicine is usually sleep and time. Patients, however, want to walk away with something concrete like a pill and will often pressure doctors to prescribe medicine. As a result, nearly a third of antibiotics prescribed in doctors’ offices, emergency rooms and clinics in the United States are not needed, according to a 2016 study. Katherine Fleming-Dutra, a CDC medical epidemiologist and the report’s lead author, said, “Clinicians are concerned about patient satisfaction and the patient demand for antibiotics.”
When the study was published, CDC director Tom Frieden commented to the Washington Post that “Antibiotics are life-saving drugs, and if we continue down the road of inappropriate use we’ll lose the most powerful tool we have to fight life-threatening infections,” This is a trend that doctors have warned about for decades. Over the past 30 years, the introduction of new antibiotics to the market has stagnated. This is because doctors have become wise to the crisis, and hold new antibiotics for use as a last resort so that they stay effective. Unfortunately, this has made it hard for pharmaceutical companies to justify the $800 million cost of bringing a new drug to market. This problem is what is often referred to as the “antibiotic paradox.”
The CDC report outlines a number of prevention options for the crisis, but notes that solving the problem will require a diverse set of approaches, including funding for new antibiotics to overcome the paradox, new antibiotic regimens designed to prevent or circumvent resistance and most importantly a massive reduction in unnecessary antibiotic usage, something we all can contribute to by remembering that antibiotics are often unnecessary when we take trips to the doctor, getting vaccinated against bacterial infections so they aren’t necessary, and choosing organic or antibiotic-free meat for our meals.