Plans to Slow Superbugs — World Health Day 2011
Washington – Public health experts warn that medical science could return to an era when doctors had no tools against infection, and they want the public to help prevent that.
Anti-microbial resistance – or AR – is the focus for World Health Day on April 7. AR is the medical term to describe bacteria that have built up defenses against the medicines we throw at them. The World Health Organization (WHO) has adopted the slogan, “No Action Today, No Cure Tomorrow” to focus attention on the issue.
“Urgent and consolidated efforts are needed to avoid regressing to the pre-antibiotic era,” WHO declares on its website, announcing its intent to deliver on April 7 a coordinated plan to slow AR.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a partner in the WHO campaign, and Dr. Arjun Srinivasan heads up infection prevention programs for the federal agency in Atlanta, Georgia. He says frequently occurring infections routinely cured by antibiotics today have the potential to become superbugs that can’t be subdued by readily available or currently known medications.
“An ear infection; meningitis, a serious infection of the spinal cord; pneumonia; infections of the urinary tract; infections of wounds – all of these were infections that, before the development of antibiotics, weren’t really treatable,” Srinivasan said in an interview. “The patient either got better or didn’t, and there was nothing we could do.”
Srinivasan, an infectious disease specialist, says two things must be done to prevent the emergence of more bacterial infections that are difficult, if not impossible, to cure with existing medical tools. Science has to develop new drugs, and practitioners and patients need to be better informed about the use of antibiotics and infection prevention behaviors.
The first one – creating new drugs – is difficult and does not promise immediate answers. Medicines that attack the weak spots in bacteria are already invented, so a new line of attack on bacteria must first be identified before new drugs are even in sight.
The second strategy – using more caution with antibiotics – is easier. Srinivasan says research has found that up to 30 percent of everyday antibiotic use is unnecessary, so changing that is an immediate imperative.
“People [are prescribed antibiotics who] don’t have bacterial infections at all, or they get antibiotics for too long [a course of treatment],” he said.
The more antibiotics swirling through human bloodstreams, the greater the chance that bacteria can become resistant to them. The humble bacterium can’t be cast as the villain in this story. In becoming resistant to the drugs that would attack it, the bacterium is just trying to defend itself, and create grandchildren that are stronger and better able to survive. And even if science does concoct new medicines in the near future, bacteria are going to keep on trying to defend themselves, evolving to become resistant to new attackers.
“We’ve got to work very hard on strategies to prevent the development of resistance in the first place because that’s what’s going to help us preserve the effectiveness of the antibiotics we have now,” Srinivasan said. “It’s what is going to make new antibiotics last longer.”
In the United States, a bacteria known as MRSA (for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is one of those that can’t be subdued with common antibiotics such as penicillin or oxacillin. The CDC estimates that it causes thousands of deaths each year, with most cases originating in hospitals where hygienic practices have not been properly followed.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)