What Is Antibiotic Resistance? A Look at This International Health Problem


Antibiotics are commonly used today, but they weren’t even in a doctor’s wheelhouse of medical solutions until rather recently.

The first antibiotic, Penicillin, was invented in 1929 by Alexander Fleming. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the medical community began to realize the potential of antibiotics, developing them to treat problematic bacterial infections.

Antibiotics are now arguably one of the most influential medical advancements in history, and they’re widely used. But frequent antibiotic use has its downside – one that is not just emerging. Antibiotic resistance is now a well-known global health crisis. As antibiotics are used more and more, the bacteria they are designed to fight begin to adapt.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance refers to the way bacteria develop to make antibiotics less effective.

The problem comes about through adaptation. Like any other organism, bacteria adapt to the world around them. The strains that survive antibiotic use are the ones that reproduce. These future strains end up resistant to the antibiotic that once protected humans and animals from harmful diseases.

What causes antibiotic resistance?

Resistance occurs naturally in the process of evolution, but antibiotic misuse in both humans and animals has played a major role in its progress. Rather than focusing on preventive measures that reduce the spread of bacterial infections (handwashing, vaccinations, water sanitation, and practicing safe sex), both patients and the medical community have been able to rely on antibiotics to treat infections in humans and animals.

Using antibiotics in the animal food supply can lead to antibiotic-resistant superbugs spreading to meat and poultry. This results in pathogens that can then spread to humans through consumption.

Furthermore, resistant bacteria can pass through animal waste and contaminate crops and the water supply, ultimately infecting humans.

In short, antibiotic overuse in both animals and humans accelerates antibiotic resistance. It must be addressed to stave off this global health problem.

What are the effects of antibiotic resistance?

As antibiotic resistance spreads, infections become more difficult to treat. This includes ailments we now consider relatively common and nonthreatening, such as pneumonia, salmonella, gonorrhea, and tuberculosis.

In an immediate sense, people experience prolonged illness, longer hospital stays, and higher medical costs. This is true for anyone, at any age, in any location.

Long-term, worsening antibiotic resistance can lead us into a post-antibiotic era. The illnesses we once controlled could kill, leading to increased mortality around the world.

List of antibiotic resistant bacteria

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are currently 18 identifiable antibiotic resistant bacteria that pose a particular threat to the US. Many of them are just as concerning in other parts of the globe. The CDC categorizes these threats as urgent, serious, or concerning.

Urgent threats

These bacteria are resistant to all or most of the antibiotics we have available today.

• Clostridium difficile: 250,000 drug-resistant infections and 14,000 deaths per year
• Carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae: 9,000 drug-resistant infections and 600 deaths per year
• Neisseria gonorrhoeae: 246,000 drug-resistant infections per year

Serious threats

The following bacteria pose worsening threats and may become urgent problems without appropriate public health monitoring.

• Multidrug-resistant acinetobacter: 7,300 drug-resistant infections and 500 deaths per year
• Drug-resistant campylobacter: 310,000 drug-resistant infections and 120 deaths per year
• Fluconazole-resistant candida: 3,400 drug-resistant infections and 220 deaths per year
• Extended spectrum enterobacteriaceae: 26,000 drug-resistant infections and 1,700 deaths per year
• Vancomycin-resistant enterococcus: 20,000 drug-resistant infections and 1,300 deaths per year
• Multidrug-resistant pseudomonas aeruginosa: 6,700 drug-resistant infections and 440 deaths per year
• Drug-resistant non-typhoidal salmonella: 100,000 drug-resistant infections per year
• Drug-resistant salmonella serotype typhi: 3,800 drug-resistant infections per year
• Drug-resistant shigella: 27,000 drug-resistant infections and 40 deaths per year
• Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus: 80,461 drug-resistant infections and 11,285 deaths per year
• Drug-resistant streptococcus pneumonia: 1,200,000 drug-resistant infections and 7,000 deaths per year
• Drug-resistant tuberculosis: one of the most common infectious diseases and a frequent cause of worldwide death

Concerning threats

The threat of antibiotic resistance is lower for these bacteria, but rapid outbreak response may be required.

• Vancomycin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus: 13 cases since 2002
• Erythromycin-Resistant Group A Streptococcus: 1,300 drug-resistant infections and 160 deaths per year
• Clindamycin-Resistant Group B Streptococcus: 7,600 drug-resistant infections and 440 deaths per year

Preventing and controlling the spread of antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance poses a substantial threat to global health, but there are ways to combat the problem. The solution lies in thwarting infections before they arise.

How can we prevent antibiotic resistance?

As an individual, you have more power than you may think. By developing healthy habits and educating your friends and family about proper antibiotic use, you can play a role in the global solution.

Some basics to remember include thoroughly washing your hands, keeping your vaccines (and your family’s) up to date, practicing safe sex, properly handling and cooking food, and avoiding foods that have been produced using antibiotics.

You should also try to avoid taking antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, and only when prescribed by a certified health professional. Start by educating yourself about when antibiotics are appropriate. Never share leftover antibiotics and do not demand antibiotics from a health care worker when you do not need them.

Prevention on a global scale

In our increasingly globalized world, infectious diseases can travel long distances in relatively short periods of time. We can’t rely solely on local initiatives to protect the public from the threat of antibiotic resistance.

Large-scale antibiotic resistance prevention requires participation from individuals and organizations across a spectrum of disciplines. This includes those in the health care industry, agriculture industry, veterinary sciences community, and governmental policy makers who can impose regulations that ensure proper antibiotic use.

If you are part of one of these communities, or would like to be, consider exploring opportunities to advocate for proper antibiotic use.

Fortunately, organizations like the World Health Organization and the CDC are leading the way in these efforts, and offer guidance for how to be part of the solution. For example, you could take part in educational programs that inform the public about how to prevent antibiotic resistance. You could also advocate for research investment to develop new antibiotics, vaccines, or diagnostic tools. You could even choose to start down a new career path to advance these efforts.

Do your part and stay informed

Global health threats are not going away, but we can all play a role in managing them. One of the best ways to fight back is to educate yourself about important global health topics. You can gather more information by reading our article, “What Is Global Health? The 6 Biggest Issues You Need to Know About.”

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