The World Health Organization issued a wake-up call April 30 when it reported that we have now entered a post-antibiotic period. What this means is that some common bacterial infections no longer respond as quickly, or at all, to drugs that used to contain them.
Bacteria are tiny living beings...neither plant nor animal. Some, like the bacteria in yogurt, are good for us, but others are deadly.
Like the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has found that some bacteria no longer respond to antibiotics like they used to. Dr. Laurie Hicks is with the CDC.
“We are seeing greater than 2 million episodes of antibiotic resistant infections each year in the U.S. alone. Twenty-three thousand of these episodes result in death," said Hicks.
If there are messages the CDC wants to get out, one is:
We want doctors to know that antibiotic resistance is a big problem," said Hicks.
"We want patients to know that antibiotics don’t work for viral infections," she said.
Antibiotic resistance already has changed the way medicine is practiced in hospitals like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
Doctors there are now more cautious about how they use antibiotics, and they constantly review treatment plans to see if patients are getting the right antibiotics and the right dose. Dr. Trish Perl is an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“You all of the sudden understand what it was like to practice medicine maybe 50, 70, 80 years ago when there weren’t antibiotics," said Perl.
Nearby, at the University of Maryland Medical Center, doctors have changed the way they care for patients in the intensive care unit.
MRSA is an antibiotic resistant staph infection that spreads easily in a hospital, especially in an intensive care unit, and it can be deadly. Dr. Anthony Harris studied whether having health care workers wear gloves and gowns in intensive care units could reduce the number of infections.
“Wearing gloves and gowns for all patient contact lead to a significant decrease in MRSA acquisition, accounting for about a 40 percent decrease," said Harris.
Dr. Perl says more money needs to be poured into research so health officials can understand how these organisms are spread. New drugs need to be developed to take the place of those that no longer work. And patients need to be educated.
"Resistance commonly develops when people skip medications or take it one day and not the next. Or they don’t think they really have to take the entire course. It’s particularly problematic with diseases like tuberculosis," she said.
Solutions need to be found fast because the World Health Organization warns that antibiotic resistance is a problem so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine.