Dear reader, you may owe your life to antibiotics. Or maybe your child, sister, brother, parent or grandparent survived a serious infection thanks to antibiotic medicine.
Since Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, countless human lives have been spared the deadly effects of bacterial pathogens. Penicillin, the historic first of the therapeutic antibiotics, was pressed into widespread use in 1942, just in time to save hundreds of thousands of soldiers whose lives were more at risk from these invisible invaders than from enemy bullets and bombs in World War II.
But this medical miracle, precisely because of its usefulness and popularity, created the conditions for its own nemesis, Dr. Marion Kainer, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist with the Tennessee Department of Health, told The Rotary Club of McMinnville on Thursday.
“Antibiotics are necessary for us to have surgery, for organ transplants and cancer therapies,” Kainer told the Rotarians. “But antibiotics are not without risk.”
That risk is the promotion and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant mutated pathogens, Kainer explained. These biological variants may have descended from normal bacteria and viruses that were pressured to fight off their antibiotic adversaries. But a tiny bunch of random mutations escaped the antibiotic onslaught. These survivors went on to grow, multiply and replace their weaker brethren and then became the dominant group. These are the commonly known “superbugs,” virtually immune to almost every drug on the pharmacist’s shelves.
In fact, government studies find some 23,000 Americans die every year as they succumb to infections that deafeated all available antiobiotic therapies, Kainer said. Another 2 million suffer illnesses in the average year, many of those resulting in crushing financial loss to patients, their families, employers and communities, the Rotary speaker observed.
And for those who survive there is physical suffering and economic cost due to prolonged and repeated hospital stays and more trips to the doctor’s office, Kainer remarked.
What contributes to the rise of the superbugs, and how can we fight back?
The medically inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics is one of the EasyPass permissions for the spread of drug-resistant pathogens, the state epidemiologist said. She urged physicians and their patients to understand antiobitics work against bacterial infections but not against virus attacks.
So for the common cold with the runny nose and cough — most likely a viral infection — antibiotics are not only useless and a waste of money, but actually encourage the growth and spread of superbugs. And sharing medicine with those for whom it is not prescribed can end badly, she warned.
When antibiotics are correctly prescribed they should be taken for the complete duration stated in the directions, she remarked. If we have a five-day supply of the drug, we shouldn’t stop taking the pills because we feel better after the first three days, Kainer said, as those pathogens that are hardest to kill stand at the end of line. If we call off a successful attack before all the bugs are wiped out, those hardy warriors will come roaring back, taking the place of their fallen comrades.
While physician and patient responsibility are key elements in fighting drug-resistant pathogens, frequent and thorough handwashing is a major line of defense for everyone. Food safety, such as proper handling and refrigerator storage of meat and vegetables, is another. This is where heating to the supplier-recommended temperature is essential to destroying any malignant microbes.
Kainer enlarges on her Rotary remarks and addresses related issues in her visit on WCPI’s weekly interview program FOCUS. The half-hour conversation will air on local public radio 91.3 on Tuesday at 5 p.m.; Wednesday at 5:05 a.m.; Thursday at 1 p.m.; and Friday at 1:05 a.m.