Experts fear antibiotic resistance puts humans in danger of becoming nearly defenseless against some bacterial infections.
The World Health Organization calls antibiotic resistance one of the three greatest threats to human health.
The improper use of antibiotics has led to strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Experts say if efforts to combat the problem are not launched now, infections that were curable could make a dangerous comeback.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calls on American lawmakers to address the problem.
"We speak of the pre-antibiotic and antibiotic eras, but if we don't improve our response to the public health problem of antibiotic resistance, we may enter a post- antibiotic world in which we will have few or no clinical interventions for some infections," he says.
Specialists are concerned that the more an antibiotic is used, the less effective it becomes. The genetic mutation of bacteria, which makes them resistant to antibiotics, is a natural process. But drug overuse has accelerated the process.
Impact of drug overuse
"You end up with very resistant bacteria in the urinary tract. That's only one example. Skin infections, lung infections, different bacteria causing these types of infections as they become more and more resistant, and then you get to more severe problem like tuberculosis in many parts of the world," says Dr. Donald Poretz, an infectious disease specialist. "People are given little of this and little of that to treat tuberculosis and tuberculosis germs develop resistance."
One of the most lethal infections born out of bacterial resistance is Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA which kills 19,000 people in the United States every year.
Since 2002, about 2 million MRSA infections have been acquired in US hospitals each year. Poretz says these infections can spread globally.
"You can have worldwide resistance, some resistant to some drugs, some resistant to other drugs in different parts of the world," he says. "And with rapid travel you can communicate those resistant bacteria to anyone here, there, there or there."
Drug companies have cut back on production of antibiotics, and that contributes to the problem, scientists say. Less than optimal dosing means the target bacteria survive and build resistance incrementally.
Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) says profits drive pharmaceutical companies to shy away from antibiotics.
"So if they're going to make a choice of making a product that some, a lot of, people are going to take every day for the rest of their lives, a lipid lowering agent, whatever you have, they're going to lean towards that rather than to make a new product that a relatively small proportion of the population will use maybe 10 days to two weeks out of the year," said Fauci.
Experts say the solution lies in educating patients and doctors to stop using antibiotics when they are not necessary.