When antibiotics were discovered about a century ago, they were looked at as a miracle. Horrific and deadly diseases suddenly became tractable and treatable. Unfortunately, this came at a price. As any antibiotic is more and more widely used, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes ineffective. Even with careful management, antibiotics lose their power through a process called antibiotic resistance.
When a bacterial infection is treated with antibiotics, it doesn’t kill off all the bacteria. A certain percentage survive, and they aren’t vulnerable to antibiotic. In more complex organisms, such protection from environmental hazards is passed on to offspring. This happens in bacteria, which reproduce by division, but there’s another, still faster way the resistance can spread. Bacteria actually pass genetic information around to peers, the way humans e-mail each other health tips from blogs.
Worse, it spreads geographically, meaning when an antibiotic loses its effectiveness, it becomes useless worldwide. Antibiotic resistance isn’t localized in one part of the world; it happens on a global scale. The effects are also felt globally. Antibiotic resistance could plunge the world back into the time before antibiotics helped bring a number of devastating illnesses under control.
One place where institutional change could make a huge difference is nursing homes. Patients in these facilities are frequently administered antibiotics as a preventative measure. In fact, as many as 70 percent of residents receive an antibiotic every year. Unfortunately, while well-intentioned, this is self-defeating, as the use of antibiotics in this way hastens resistance and makes the drugs less effective.
However, any time a patient, of any age, is given antibiotics they don’t really need, it contributes to antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are not the only or necessarily the best treatment for all illnesses. If a doctor doesn’t want to prescribe antibiotics, it’s probably because other medications are about as effective.