Sunday, 26 September 2021

The incovenient truth about antibiotics

MANY thanks for your responses to my article last time around — keep those suggestions for topics coming. Shortly after I had finished that article about the common cold, I developed a cold of my own, so I have decided to postpone indefinitely my planned article on smallpox.

Our topic this week is antibiotics, a subject which is garnering more attention in the media. Since 2015, there has even been an annual world antibiotic awareness week which, coincidentally, was last week.

Why the fuss? Well, I am sure most people have heard/read all sorts of stories in the news about antibiotic resistance and the emergence of ominously entitled “superbugs”. This is all for good reason as I will expand upon.

To begin with, let’s focus on what antibiotics actually are. Prior to their discovery and development in the early half of the 20th century, we had no really effective ways of treating bacterial infections.

Historically, all manner of approaches were used, from the rather dramatic process of blood-letting (thought to stabilise the balance of the perceived four humours, blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) to the use of things like willow bark by the ancient Greeks for curing fevers and pains. (Willow bark contains salicin, which is chemically related to modern day aspirin.)

Things all changed when the Scottish botanist Alexander Fleming returned to his laboratory in 1928 after a family holiday and noticed that mould had grown in his petri dishes of staphylococci bacteria. The mould in question (penicillium) had killed off the surrounding areas of the bacteria, prompting Fleming’s famous response: “That’s funny.” Since then many different families of antibiotics have been developed to fight off bacterial infections that had once been, at best, troublesome and, at worst, fatal.

As we approach a century of antibiotic use, we can look back upon a vast improvement in our ability to treat infections such as pneumonia, syphilis, tuberculosis, meningitis and many more. This has no doubt had a vast social and economic impact. However, now we come to the problem.

Antibiotic resistance is a process that has been developing from the very beginning. In broad terms, let us consider a group of bacteria exposed to an antibiotic. In any reproducing population, there will always be random mutations that occur in the genes of certain individual bacterial cells. Sometimes these mutations happen to protect the bacteria from the effects of an antibiotic.

Bacteria without that protection die, leaving the resistant bacteria free to multiply without competition. Over time, these populations spread from person to person, meaning that, when the same antibiotic is used repeatedly, it becomes less and less effective in controlling these bacteria.

We are now at a stage in which no new class of antibiotic has been found since 1987 and there are thought to be around 12,000 deaths each year in the UK as a result of bacteria resistant to antibacterial treatment. If this trend continues without further action, the World Health Organisation predicts that the global mortality from such infections could be as much as 10 million people a year by 2050.

Advancements and achievements in modern medicine such as chemotherapy, organ transplants and routine operations like caesarean sections and hip replacements — all of which rely heavily on the availability of effective antibiotics — are now potentially at risk. Development of resistance is and always was a natural and unavoidable process but our use of them has unequivocally made things worse than they could have been. In 2015, it is thought that around 25 per cent of antibiotics were taken unnecessarily in the UK.

When you factor in
unregulated use of antibiotics in farming and the availability of antibiotics over the counter in some countries, one begins to see how much of a global issue this is.

On a personal note, I have certainly seen strikingly inappropriate use of strong antibiotics prescribed in other countries for even the most trivial of ailments. There is most definitely a responsibility among us as healthcare professionals to monitor what we are prescribing.

Having said that, there have been surveys suggesting that up to 90 per cent of GPs have experienced pressure from patients to prescribe antibiotics even when this was not appropriate and would serve no purpose.

While this obviously differs from area to area (and, to be fair, you’re a pretty good bunch), we all share a certain responsibility in tackling this issue.

I don’t want to sound too gloomy and, thankfully, there has been some international recognition of the issue. The WHO endorsed a global action plan in 2015 (though lamentably it will now have to make do without the help of Robert Mugabe) and since then 193 countries have given further political endorsements via the UN to install tighter regulation and encourage further research into new antibiotic classes.

As often is the case with such gradual phenomena, the effects of such crises are not always immediately apparent. However, in this case, the signs have been there for a long time and Fleming himself warned about the potential for resistance. Now those signs are becoming ever more obvious and we must face up to the inconvenient truth. We stand to lose a lot if we refuse to do so.

Hygiene both in the community and in hospitals is vital to prevent the spread of bacteria. Responsible and restrained prescribing from doctors both here and all over the world is also required.

Research into new antimicrobial agents is ongoing but slow and techniques to bolster our existing agents is important for our short-term management of the more serious infections. Crucially, educating people as to why it is often inappropriate to prescribe an antibiotic is just as important — after all, we’re all in this together.

Our honeymoon period with antibiotics and their undeniable benefits ended long ago but since their inception we have created a deep-seated culture of dependence. This will be difficult to withdraw from, especially considering the advances we have built around it. Over the coming years, we must now consider whether or not an even more dramatic shift in our utilisation of such medicines is required before nature takes the matter out of our hands.

If you would like a subject covered in this column, email doctor@henleystandard.co.uk

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