When Professor Alexander Fleming noted the powerful effect of penicillium notatum mold on staphylococcus bacteria on a lab dish back in 1928, a new era in medical treatment was born. Infected wounds and previously life-threatening or debilitating illnesses, including many childhood diseases, soon became treatable—and survivable—as scientists developed a range of powerful antibiotic drugs. For those of us raising families now, the magnitude of this advance is difficult to imagine or overstate. Yet less than a century later, these medical gains are under threat.
The reason? Antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic resistance refers to the ability of disease-causing bacteria to combat and survive exposure to our life-giving antibiotic drugs. There may be several reasons why this resistance has developed, and these will be explored in more depth in a future post. Parents and other caregivers, however, should understand that major factors in the development of antibiotic-resistance organisms, however, are generally considered to be 1) overuse and incorrect use of antibiotics—that is, taking antibiotics when the illness does not call for it (in the case of viral infections, for instance, which are not affected by antibiotics) and 2) incorrect use of correctly prescribed antibiotics (for example, not finishing the course or sticking to scheduled times for taking the medicine).
When disease-causing bacteria develop resistance to several antibiotic drugs, we refer to them as superbugs. Some strains of bacteria that cause serious illnesses such as tuberculosis have become superbugs, requiring newer and more powerful antibiotics to stop them. The difficulty is that scientists have been unable to develop new traditional antibiotic drugs as quickly as resistance is developing. The presence of superbugs means that we may soon find ourselves in an era that very much resembles the pre-antibiotic age, when lives languished and were lost because wounds and bacterial illnesses could not be treated effectively. Indeed, this is already a reality with certain superbugs such as MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which media reports often refer to as the “flesh-eating” bacteria.
Here in Kenya–where most anyone can walk into a pharmacy, order any antibiotics desired and take them without receiving any advice from a doctor on the correct way to use them—resistance is a growing problem. It is vitally important that we understand the threat that individual actions of this nature, multiplied many times all over the country, pose to the health of everyone here. The subject of antibiotics use is multifaceted, and we’ll be covering it in a series of posts inspired by parents’ response to our recent article on scarlet fever. To safeguard the effectiveness of antibiotics for situations when they are vitally needed, we really should be thinking in terms of using these powerful drugs less often. This recent article from an American pedicatrician, Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, explains why.