World Antibiotic WeekWorld Antibiotic Awareness Week 2017 is set to occur from November 13 to 19 this year. Sponsored and run by the World Health Organization (WHO), World Antibiotic Awareness Week will be focusing on achieving one very specific goal set forth by the WHO: Encourage people to seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional before taking antibiotics. The reasoning behind this year’s theme is unsurprising but necessary to address. Simply, the overuse of antibiotics has caused these medicines to find their way into surrounding environments – such as water systems – ultimately establishing perfect breeding grounds for superbugs.

Worldwide, it is estimated that nearly 50 percent of antibiotics are purchased without a prescription. Impoverished nations, including parts of South America and Asia, regularly exchange these valuable items on the black market. Essentially, access to many antibiotics is wide open. However, antibiotic-resistance is increasing, too, which begs the question: what is happening with the drugs people are getting a hold of?

In short, the leak of antibiotics into the environment is both incidental and intentional. The incidental introduction occurs simply by taking the medication. The human body does not fully metabolize most antibiotics and, therefore, the residue ultimately ends up in sewer systems. However, this minuscule amount of residue is exacerbated by the intentional flushing of old antibiotics. When the drugs make it into the wastewater systems, they kill the susceptible bacteria. What bacteria the drugs cannot overtake, though, only grow stronger as a result of the exposure.

Unfortunately, resistant bacteria do not stay in the wastewater. Treatment plants and water recycling plants aim to reuse and reintegrate wastewater back into the public domain. While not necessarily for drinking purposes, the general public is still exposed to whatever bacteria may have survived the drugs and the treatments. These superbugs are posing a major health problem, because how does one treat bacteria that are resistant to the drugs that once would have treated it?

While one part of the problem is untreated water, the other problem is posing a severe threat to the future of infectious diseases caused by bacteria that now possess a strong resistance toward treatments. WHO’s prescription for World Antibiotic Week addresses the entire global community, because it will take everyone’s awareness and cooperation in order to stop the trend of antibiotic resistance. Doctors are encouraged to resist prescribing unless it is truly necessary. Patients are encouraged to take the drugs only when prescribed and always finish the prescription. Agricultural workers are encouraged to ensure veterinary supervision whenever antibiotics are given to animals. Leaders must make effective action plans to encourage the safe use of antibiotics by all.

The safe use of antibiotics is everyone’s responsibility. The refusal on the part of any member of the global community has worldwide significance, though. When one person chooses to flush a few pills, their neighbor may end up exposed to the recycled water carrying the resistant bacteria. Alternatively, by everyone doing their part, the global community can make progress in stifling the resistant bacterial strains and reinvigorate the effectiveness of common medicine.

Taylor Elkins

Photo: Flickr

Antibiotic Resistance in Bacteria
A few of the major issues in attempting to combat bacteria is how quickly they adapt, evolve relative to large organisms, and develop antibiotic resistance.

Bacteria are able to replicate on a much greater magnitude than macro-organisms — E. Coli only takes 23 minutes to replicate — and they can adapt functional changes in a very short period of time.

For example, scientists at Harvard Medical School conducted an experiment where they grew E. Coli bacteria in a petri dish that consisted of increasingly strong concentrations of antibiotics. After eleven days, E. Coli strains emerged that could resist antibiotic concentrations that were a thousand times greater than the amount necessary to initially kill them.

As antibiotics have become more prevalent over the past century, bacteria have been evolving at a rate faster than we can keep up with. About 700,000 people are estimated to have died of infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria last year.

If people do not take action against this problem, by the year 2050 we could have 10 million deaths a year due to resistant strains, meaning that resistant bacteria would be taking more lives than cancer.

A U.N. meeting was called on September 14 to discuss this issue. One factor contributing to the rise of resistant strains is the overuse of antibiotics in humans. Antibiotics tend to be overprescribed or simply used when they are not needed.

It is estimated that less than half the antibiotics people take are actually necessary. Unnecessarily using antibiotics contributes to the rise of resistant bacteria without achieving anything beneficial.

The overuse of antibiotics is seen even more often in the treatment of animals. According to the Huffington Post, over two-thirds of antibiotics used in the U.S. is used to treat livestock. Unnecessary antibiotic use in agriculture leads to resistant bacteria strains in humans as well.

Fortunately, action has been and will continue to be taken to reduce the rise of strains of bacteria that show antibiotic resistance. For example, the development of fish vaccines meant that antibiotics no longer had to be used in Norwegian salmon farming. Over the past six years, the Netherlands has reduced their animal antibiotic use by 56 percent.

Additionally, avoiding infection initially will reduce the need for antibiotics. Hospitals could make it a policy to discharge babies sooner before they have time to be exposed to potentially infectious diseases.

Educating mothers on the important role of breastfeeding in building up babies’ immune systems could also contribute to preventing the onset of infection.

According to the World Health Organization, even those of us living among the general populace can take action on this issue. We can practice better hygiene to prevent infections.

We should also be careful not to use antibiotics unless specifically prescribed by health professionals and make sure that we take the full course of antibiotics once they are prescribed to us.

Edmond Kim

Photo: Flickr