What Can You Do To Slow The Threat of Antibiotic Resistance?

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This week I’m out of town for the annual National Marfan Foundation conference. While I’m gone, I’m featuring a couple of guest posters. Today’s guest post is by Natalie Mueller, who is working on her Masters of Public Health. Antibiotic resistance wasn’t an issue I’d really contemplated until I was working on my MPH, but now I take it very seriously. I believe it’s a topic that is particularly important to the Marfan and related disorders community because of how much time we spend in hospitals, where infections are easily transmitted. Proper use of antibiotics, hand washing, and feeling empowered enough to request that our medical professionals wash/sanitize their hands will reduce our risk of infections.

Bacteria are all around us, living on almost every surface imaginable, including in our bodies. Sometimes, these bacteria can be useful. They can help facilitate absorption, aid in digestion and metabolize vitamins. Unfortunately, some bacteria cause infection and disease that require antibiotic medication intervention. Antibiotics are the wonder drugs of our time. Infections that used to wipe out whole populations are now easily cured with a few doses.

However, there is one BIG problem. Bacteria evolve. Fast. So, the antibiotic that easily cleaned up that infection this time might not do it a second time. It could be that the bacteria got ‘smart’ and picked up some resistance along the way. While it takes hundreds of years for humans to evolve, bacteria life spans are hours; therefore, they are adapting at alarmingly fast rates.

This adaption has created antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is touted as one of the world’s greatest threats to human health. One example of a common and dangerous antibiotic resistant infection is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA kills more Americans every year than emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and homicide combined, according to the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA). This one bacterial organism is wreaking havoc on our health, all because it acquired resistance to our first line defense antibiotics.

Hospitals are breeding ground for MRSA and other infections. The IDSA estimates that nearly 2 million Americans per year develop hospital-acquired infections that result in 99,000 deaths. Most of these infections are due to antibacterial resistant pathogens. Antibiotic resistant infections are expensive too- the IDSA estimates that antibiotic resistant pathogens cost the U.S. health care system between $21 to $34 billion dollars annually.

So the obvious question is: why don’t we develop new antibiotics to fight these infections?

As “DUH” as it sounds, it just isn’t happening. Developing new drugs is expensive and since antibiotics are short-dose short-term treatments, it’s not a profitable drug to sell. Pharmaceutical companies much rather spend money on medications for chronic conditions that require customers to pop pills daily. Because of this, we are subject to using the available antibiotics, which are becoming less effective every day.

So, now that I’ve sufficiently scared you, what can you do to help slow antibiotic resistance?

There are some simple steps.

1. Wash your hands. (And encourage proper hand washing in your children!)

• Hand washing is the number one way to stop the spread of disease. Proper hand washing includes: using soap and water, scrubbing your hands for a total of 20 seconds (or 2 verses of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song), and paying special attention to forgotten areas like between your fingers, under your nails and your wrists. Any type of soap is effective and 20 seconds is much longer than it seems. Encourage your children to wash their hands before and after using the restroom, before and after meals, after playing with pets, and when they are visibly dirty.

2. Take antibiotics only for bacterial infections.

• Antibiotics can ONLY fight bacterial infections. Illness caused by viruses, such as colds and the flu, do NOT respond to antibiotics. Taking antibiotics for viral infections increases the chances of developing antibiotic resistance infections. Do not pressure your doctor into prescribing an antibiotic if he or she has diagnosed the illness as a virus. Trust your doctor to do what is right for you and your child. Also, remember that many bacterial infections can clear up without antibiotics and may result in a natural resistance for later in life.

3. Take antibiotics appropriately.

• If your doctor does prescribe an antibiotic, take the medicine exactly as prescribed. Take the entire dose to completion even if you are beginning to feel better. Stopping the medicine early could result in the bacteria acquiring resistance. Be aware of the difference between a side effect and an allergy. Slightly upset stomach or loose stools may just be a side effect of the antibiotic or another symptom-relieving drug and do not warrant stopping the medicine. However, severe reactions, such as severe vomiting, painful rash, or difficulty breathing, may be a sign of an allergy and you should contact your doctor immediately.

4. Make personal protection a priority.

• Don’t share personal items such as razors or towels. If you or your child are admitted to a hospital, make sure all linens are properly laundered and all surfaces are wiped clean between uses. If your health care professional does not wash their hands or wear gloves during an examination or procedure, don’t be afraid to ask them to do so. It is not rude to be concerned about your safety and health.

5. Educate yourself on proper antibiotic use.

• The Pennsylvania Department of Health, in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School Of Medicine, has developed a website to educate parents, child care center providers, and children about antibiotic resistance. The website can be found at www.KnowWhenToSayNo.org. The website has specific pages for everyone, including a kids’ hangout with links to interactive games and a fun drawing competition on the importance of hand washing. The website can provide more information on when it is appropriate to take antibiotics and when to say no.

Don’t let the threat of antibiotic resistance continue to grow. Fight back and Get Smart About Antibiotics.

About the author: Natalie Mueller is the Get Smart: Know When Antibiotics Work Program intern with the Pennsylvania Department of Health. She is currently pursuing her Master Degree in Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Although she has no children, she has a vested interest in children and their health. You can contact her at nmueller@pa.gov and visit www.KnowWhenToSayNo.org for more information on antibiotic resistance.

photo by: e-MagineArt.com
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2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much Maya!

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  2. An interesting side note (for someone (like me) who thinks that bacterial evolution is fascinating):

    Bacteria do not just evolve through natural selection via genetic mutation and recombination passing to offspring — i.e. vertical gene transfer — they also have a method to share genes with other unrelated bacteria via the exchange of transferable rings of genetic code called plasmids. This is known as horizontal gene transfer, and means that large populations of bacteria can benefit from the successful evolutions of a few individuals, instead of having to wait for survivors to repopulate.

    This is, of course, just more reason why your point is valid and we should be paying more attention to this issue. Thanks for writing!

    [Reply]

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