Thursday, 20 November 2014

How you can help fight antibiotic resistance

The advent of antibiotics was a revolution in healthcare, and likewise, the gradual loss of their effectiveness is possibly the most frightening situation to find ourselves in. The conquest of bacterial infections is over, and the bacteria have turned the tide and come up victorious. Worst of all, we're all to blame because we've all unwittingly played a part in antibiotic resistance.

When antibiotics were first discovered and began to be hailed as a miracle, nobody thought that they would simply stop working one day. This is what is actually happening though, and it has dire consequences for the world.

Only a decade ago, superbugs like methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), were the kind of dangerous bacteria that was only found in hospitals, where infections and antibiotic use were more concentrated. This has changed, and now MRSA is found all over the world and there's a chance you could become infected with this highly resistant bacteria even from a simple prick to the finger.

Bacteria have even become resistant to most of the more powerful 'last resort' styled drugs like vancomycin, which are usually only used to treat infections that haven't responded to other antibiotics. Strains of tuberculosis called 'extremely resistant tuberculosis' are becoming almost impossible to treat, and new classes of antibiotics aren't being actively developed.

This is all real, and it's exactly as terrifying as it sounds. If antibiotics are lost, society itself will return to the dark days of medicine where nothing could be done to treat an infection. If your body can't fight it off, you, or someone you love very dearly, could lose their life. It's absolutely as serious as it sounds.

What causes antibiotic resistance?

Bacteria are extremely diverse, just like all other lifeforms. Unlike most life forms however, they multiply and reproduce at an unprecedented rate. Under the right conditions, a population of bacteria could quadruple within a few hours or less depending on the type of bacteria present. This allows genetic mutations to occur much more quickly in bacteria.

These mutations could be relatively benign, or they could even make a strain of bacteria more virulent. Another possibility is that a strain of bacteria can develop that isn't susceptible to a particular antibiotic. When that antibiotic is used, the bacteria that are susceptible are killed off, and the resistant strain goes on to multiply.

This is the ultimate cause of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics have been overused since they were introduced, and it's not uncommon for people to take them when they don't even need them. This has lead to a scenario where resistant strains of bacteria have become the most dominant kind because we've killed off the strains that were susceptible to our antibiotics and caused artificial selection to take over.

It's now more likely that when we contract an infection, the causative agent will be a resistant strain of bacteria, because there is simply more resistant bacteria around now. Our overuse of antibiotics has driven their evolution and could cause our own downfall.

Find out more about the cause of antibiotic resistance, and the methods scientists are using to stop it...

How can you fight antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance starts with you. When one person starts to take a stand, more are soon to follow. Before long, there is a revolution. We need an antibiotic revolution to sweep the globe to slow down the growth of resistance and give scientists the time they need to come up with ways to reverse resistance and develop new antibiotics.

To take a stand, all you need to do is try not to rely on antibiotics so much and only take them when they are really necessary. If you are one of the millions of people who ask the doctor for antibiotics when you have a cold or flu, you can make a difference just by stopping this and letting your body fight a cold. The common cold and flu are caused by viruses anyway, and antibiotics do absolutely nothing for a viral infection.

You can also speak to your doctor and ask them what they're doing to fight antibiotic resistance. Are they trying to limit how they prescribe antibiotics? Do they realise what is happening? Become a catalyst and start a conversation with your friends and family. Show them this article, or direct them to the CDC or other relevant health organisation. Share on social media and help spread the word.

We can't stop antibiotic resistance just by limiting how we use antibiotics, but we can definitely slow it down. If enough people jump on board and make the informed decision to really think about how they use antibiotics and whether they really need to take them for their condition, you'll help allow the much needed time for antibiotic resistance to be researched and conquered.

This can be done, but it needs to start right now, and it needs to start with you!

Easy ways to combat antibiotic resistance

  • Use safe food practices - avoiding bacterial food poisoning, avoids the need for antibiotics. Always store food properly and never eat anything that has expired or has not been preserved properly. If you don't know whether a food has been stored properly, you shouldn't eat it.

  • Practice good hygiene - good hygiene protects you from illnesses and helps avoid the need for antibiotics. Always wash your hands when handling animals, dirt, before eating, and before and after using the bathroom.

  • Don't ask for antibiotics when you have a cold or other virus - sure, your doctor may prescribe them to you, but they really shouldn't. Antibiotics have no effect on a viral infection. They only kill bacteria.

  • Always take the full course of antibiotics - often an infection will be cured before you finish a course of antibiotics, but if you stop taking them early, you increase the chance of resistant bacteria developing.

  • If you have chronic tonsillitis, consider having your tonsils removed - it's not recommended to just go ahead and have your tonsils removed to curb antibiotic resistance, but if you're sick of dealing with the tonsillitis and want to help fight against resistance, getting your tonsils removed is a way to stop the infections and avoid the need for antibiotics in the future.

  • Treat acne with alternative methods - if you have acne and use an antibiotic cream or take an oral antibiotic, you can try an alternative treatment like benzoyl peroxide, laser therapy, light therapy, or retinoid creams. Isotretinoin is often the best treatment if your acne is serious. Not only are these treatments often more effective, but they help avoid antibiotic resistance.

  • Practice safe sex - gonorrhea is becoming highly resistant and difficult to treat. You can avoid sexually transmitted bacterial infections by practicing safe sex and avoiding contact with infected persons. Get yourself checked and encourage your partner to do so to.

  • Avoid exposing other people to illnesses - if you have a bacterial infection, you should try to avoid exposing other people to your illness whenever possible. Always wear dressings over skin infections like impetigo, and wash your hands before touching objects or other people. If possible, simply stay at home while you recover. The less people that get infected, the less antibiotics that will need to be taken.

  • Talk to your friends, family, doctor, and pharmacist and share your concerns about antibiotic resistance. Ask them what they are doing and how they intend to help slow it down.

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