It causes 23,000 deaths every year in the United States- that’s more than AIDS (6,955), childhood cancer (1,960), food borne illness (3,000), childbirth complications (650), ebola (2), and Zika (1). Heck, it causes 50 times more deaths than measles in the pre-vaccine era (450). It can cause death quickly even in young, healthy people. It’s circulating everywhere. Pharmaceutical companies are doing little to develop new drugs to fight it. There is very little in the way of disease surveillance on a national and international level to track and monitor the spread of this emerging threat. If things continue as they are now, there may be 10 million deaths from this every year starting in 2050.
What is this strange threat? You may be surprised to find out that it’s antibiotic resistant infections.
Medical and public health personnel have been concerned for several years about a “perfect storm” of antibiotic resistance that is brewing: more bacteria are becoming resistant to more antibiotics and fewer new antibiotics are being developed than ever before. You may not have heard nearly as much about antibiotic resistant infections in the news as Ebola and Zika, but the threat is far more real.
The irony is that the more we use antibiotics the less effective they become because of the highly adaptable nature of bacteria. Many scientists have compared antibiotic effectiveness to resources like oil or timber or fresh water- something that is limited and must be carefully conserved.
However, all hope is not lost. There are still a few things we can each do to help fight antibiotic resistance.
- Don’t take antibiotics for colds and the flu. I heard an ER nurse in one of my classes complain about this- people show up at the emergency room with the flu and demand an antibiotic. Doctors say it happens frequently in their offices too, and they don’t want to lose patients or have a confrontation, so they write a prescription just to be done with the whole situation. According to a 2012 study by the Pew Trust, 12% of Americans believe that antibiotics are very effective at treating viral illnesses like colds and flu and 36% believed that antibiotics are somewhat effective at treating viral illnesses. Dead wrong on both counts. Antibiotics are only for treating bacterial infections- and even those are becoming hit and miss as more bacteria strains become resistant to the antibiotics in current use. When you take an antibiotic unnecessarily, it gives the bacteria a chance to adapt to the antibiotic. The adapted bacteria then multiply rapidly and spread through healthcare facilities and in the community. If someone develops an infection from the resistant bacteria, they can become very sick and even die, especially if they are immunocompromised.
- Sharing is caring…except with antibiotics. Don’t share any leftover antibiotics. Giving a little leftover antibiotics to a friend or family member who is feeling sick gives any bacteria that person is carrying the chance to be exposed to and adapt resistance to the shared antibiotic.
- Finish the complete course of antibiotics- even if you are feeling better. Taking the full course of antibiotics increases the chances of killing the bacteria so they don’t survive and develop resistance to the antibiotic you are taking.
- Try some essential oils as a first line of defense.
If you’re into essential oils and use them to try to boost your immune system during the fall and winter, you may actually be on the right track. A 2004 study by Edwards-Jones, Buck, Shawcross, et. al. found that a combination of grapefruit seed extract and geranium essential oils on burn dressing showed a high level of antibacterial activity against Epidemic methicillin-resistant S. aureus (EMRSA 15). Kavanaugh and Ribbeck (2012) found that essential oils of cassia, Peru balsam, red thyme were found to be effective against a strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa that is resistant to both oxicillin and methicillin. Used properly, some essential oils may be a good choice for disinfecting surfaces in your house because they could potentially kill off some of those nasty “superbugs”.
- Buy antibiotic free meat and dairy when possible. Guess where 80% of the antibiotics in America are used? Are you sitting down? Livestock and agriculture. Along with treating infections in frequently sick animals, antibiotics are also used to promote the growth of food animals. Use of antibiotics in livestock is actually the biggest problem with antibiotic resistance. Despite the public health threat, regulation of antibiotic use for livestock within the United States is pretty much non-existent. The CDC is working on education programs, but at least right now, there is no legislation about how to use antibiotics for livestock. We can still vote with our money though and choose meat and dairy that are antibiotic free as much as possible.
But take heart. Statistically speaking, antibiotic resistance isn’t the most deadly thing you’ll encounter in your day. Receiving care at a hospital could put you at risk for the third leading cause of disease in the United States- medical errors. But even before that there’s cancer (no. 2) and heart disease (no. 1).