Amid the frenzy about a potential Ebola outbreak in the United States in recent months, many Americans may have forgotten about the more common deadly viruses that have claimed millions of lives in years past.
Now, a new British-commissioned review has turned attention back to the growing threat of drug-resistant superbugs and raised questions about how to best quell their impact. If left unabated, the superbugs could kill an additional 10 million people annually and drive healthcare costs up by $100 million by 2050.
“Antibiotic resistance is a direct threat to the well-being of ordinary people who need to depend on antibiotics to treat everyday infections,” infectious disease specialist Dr. Timothy Leahy told ThinkProgress.
Leahy, a professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, added: “There are only two ways to fight antibiotic resistance: stop antibiotic misuse and create new antibiotics. Both are challenging because they require us to balance public health concerns with either ingrained habits or vested interests.”
The medical community has explored the issue of infections developing resistance to antibiotics since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. Though effective in killing dangerous microorganisms, research has found that the synthetic compounds don’t work when used beyond the suggested timespan or when patients don’t take their medication as directed.
In those cases, bacteria isn’t wiped out in its entirety, eventually developing into the stronger, drug resistant form. The effects can be harrowing: nearly 23,000 people die annually and nearly 2 million become sick because of improper antibiotic use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical costs also increase as a result, in part because of prolonged hospitalization, additional tests, lost income, and use of alternative medications.
In 2012, World Health Organization head Margaret Chan warned that the weakening of antibiotics would mean the “end of modern medicine as we know it.” Months later, English Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies stressed the importance of this issue before members of the Parliament, saying that antibiotic research and the development of strong drugs must remain a priority.
Leahy, however, suggests a simpler solution. “The fix for antibiotic overuse in humans is to overcome the misconception that giving inappropriately such as to people with a cold is harmless,” he told ThinkProgress.
Food manufacturers also share some blame in the mutation of common bacteria — including E.coli and Salmonella — into more drug resistant forms. More than 30 million pounds of antibiotics have been used on farms throughout the United States as a part of an effort to induce growth in livestock and prevent the risk of infection among the animals that live in unsanitary conditions.
However, instead of holding manufacturers more accountable in reducing their use of antibiotics, the Food and Drug Administration has relied on voluntary guidelines that can potentially be circumvented — much to the chagrin of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), who has introduced legislation that would stop the use of eight classes of antibiotics on animals.
“We have been warned by the World Health Organization about a post-antibiotic future where routine infections become fatal and common surgeries become obsolete without antibiotics to stave off infection,” Slaughter said in a statement. “The only way to avoid that fate is to enforce mandatory limits on the overuse of antibiotics on the farm. That’s exactly what my legislation would do, and that’s why it’s supported by 450 outside scientific groups and the city councils of over 40 American cities.”