Pharmacies in India shuttered their doors last Wednesday to protest online sales of medication. While the internet has added to the problem of unregulated prescription drugs sales, the country struggles with one of the world’s highest rates of resistance to antibiotic drugs.
“We already have a huge problem of [prescriptions purchased without doctors’ orders] for face-to-face sales that is a problem,” Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, who heads the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Politics, said in an interview. “The internet sales are likely to make this worse.
He also cited poor public health practices, unsanitary living conditions, and increasing use of antibiotics for growth promotion in poultry as factors that contribute to the diminishing powers of antibiotics in India. With continued use of the drugs or their misuse, bacteria evolve into stronger forms that are resistant to antibiotics.
While resistance rates vary from country to country, the crises in places like India is already spilling over to other parts of the world. The situation is so dire that the advances made by the advent of antibiotics could be completely undone if nothing is done to deal with the issue of resistance.
[T]he world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.
“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security said in a statement last year.
That fear is already becoming a reality in India where 95 percent of adults carry bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics prescribed as a “last resort” when all others fail. To get a sense of how high that rate is, only 10 percent of adults in Queens, New York carry the same bacteria.
Those worst affected are often those with the weakest immune systems.
Last year, more than 58,000 infants died in India because they were born with bacterial infections resistant to most known antibiotics. Part of the problem stems from hospitals where many newborns are injected with antibiotics in an attempt to save them from the illness in the country’s notoriously unsanitary hospitals.
Through ResistanceMap, a project that tracks antibiotic use and resistance around the world, Laxminaran showed that India has among the highest rates of resistance to each of the five types of antibiotics that treat Escherichia coli (E.coli).
Antibiotic resistant “superbugs” first identified in India have been since spread around the world. Researchers have discovered them from the United States to Japan.
Laxminarayan has related the risk of antibiotic resistance to the globalized threat of climate change. He told ThinkProgress that world leaders will have to enact coordinated efforts similar to those for environmental issues to fight off a plague of antibiotic resistance.
“This is increasingly gaining momentum as public health and political leadership but the talk has to be translated into action,” he said.
Specifically, he added, global leaders should “create a global fund to alter incentives for antibiotic use, change national policies to conserve effectiveness and create new tools, diagnostics and drugs that will ensure that we retain the ability to treat infectious diseases.”
Some countries have also managed to beat back antibiotic resistance through national programs and legislation.
Sweden, for instance, has relatively low rates of antibiotic use and resistance that it achieved, in part, through an educational campaign about the dangers of over-using antibiotics.
The United States has attempted to curb the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by purchasing beef and poultry treated with lower rates of antibiotics. Nearly 23,000 Americans die each year because of antibiotic resistance, according to the Center for Disease Control.
As ThinkProgress has previously reported, most American health professionals don’t think it’s their responsibility to combat antibiotic resistance.
If measures aren’t taken soon, however, the world might face a plague of once easily treatable illnesses turned deadly. That’s because the drug-resistant bacteria evolve faster than scientific researchers can find ways to deal with them.