The rise of Antimicrobial Resistance

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By Emmanuel Elebesunu

Have you ever had an illness from an infection and you kept taking drugs for it but there was no improvement? That, my friend, might have been as a result of antimicrobial resistance. If you keep hearing of those words but the concept sounds a bit complex to you, this article is just what you need to demystify it.

What is Antimicrobial resistance?

Let’s separate those two words – Antimicrobial and Resistance. First of all, what are antimicrobials? These are drugs or substances that are capable of destroying or preventing the growth of microorganisms that could be potential pathogens. They consist of antibiotics, antifungals, antivirals and antiparasitics, which are drugs that kill or halt the growth of pathogenic bacteria, fungi, viruses and parasites respectively.

I believe we know what resistance means, so combining the two words, antimicrobial resistance refers to the ability of microorganisms to counter the effects of these drugs and continue thriving.

Among the various types of microbes, bacteria are the most likely to develop resistance due to their highly adaptive nature, thus this article will focus more on antibiotic resistance because it is the most disturbing aspect of antimicrobial resistance. Antibiotics are drugs that destroy or inhibit the growth of bacteria. These drugs have been of immense value to the human population because they have served to cure a lot of infections and prevent a lot of deaths from diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhoid fever and so on.

The big issue now is that just as we have learnt to fight bacteria using antibiotics, these bacteria are quickly learning new ways to fight back and withstand the effects of these drugs.

How are Antibiotics produced?

Antibiotics are actually chemicals produced naturally by various bacteria and fungi in our environment. They produce these substances when competition for nutrients is very high and use it as a weapon to destroy other bacteria around in order to get enough nutrients for themselves. Along the line, the opponent bacteria being destroyed will start to develop various mechanisms which they can use to resist the effects of these substances.

Though most antibiotics are natural, some others are produced artificially or from modification of the natural antibiotics, then they are made into drugs to be used by man for curing bacterial infections.

What causes resistance to Antibiotics?

There are many causes, but most of them revolve around our over-reliance on antibiotics. Some of these include:

  1. Overuse of antibiotics, even for treatment of minor infections that could resolve on their own.
  2. Wrong prescription of antibiotics for treatment of non-bacterial infections such as sore throat and other infections caused by viruses or fungi.
  3. Self-medication leading to antibiotic misuse such as taking incomplete doses of the drugs just to relieve symptoms.
  4. Use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes like the exploitation of antibiotics for improving livestock growth in agriculture.

What makes Antibiotic resistance so dangerous?

Currently, 700,000 people die yearly from antibiotic-resistant infections and at the rate which antibiotic resistance is climbing, WHO estimates that by 2050, about 10 million people could die yearly, which is equivalent to a death toll of one person every three seconds. Simple infections could once again become killers and the current medical treatments we take for granted might soon be ineffective.

Many people are not aware about the threat antibiotic resistance poses. Even more scary is the emergence of bacteria nicknamed ‘superbugs’, which exhibit multi-drug resistance i.e. They are resistant to many types of antibiotics. An example is the bacteria that causes gonorrhoea, called Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which has become resistant to almost every antibiotic used for its treatment. This means an increase in the death rate of gonorrhoea patients and the likelihood that gonorrhoea may soon become impossible to treat.

Another alarming fact is that the research and production of new antibiotics has greatly dropped since the 1980s due to barriers in scientific discovery and pharmaceutical production. As more antibiotics are produced and used, more cases of antibiotic resistance are reported.

How can Antibiotic resistance be stopped?

In order to avoid this impending post-antibiotic apocalypse, some steps we could take include:

  1. Employment of rapid diagnostic methods that will serve to quickly determine the specific cause of a bacterial infection and how best it can be treated. This will help reduce the use of and subsequent resistance to broad spectrum antibiotics.
  2. Avoidance of self-medication when ill by seeking help from medical professionals for accurate diagnosis and prescription of suitable drugs for treatment. Never take antibiotics for sore throats, cold or flu, as these are mainly caused by viruses.
  3. When given a dose of antibiotics, make sure you strictly follow the prescription and complete the dosage. Even after relief from the symptoms, keep taking the drugs till you complete the prescribed dosage.
  4. The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture for enhancing animal growth should be discouraged, as it promotes antibiotic resistance in these animals, which can eventually be passed on to humans through feeding and contact with animal excreta.
  5. More funding and investments should be put into the research and development of new antibiotics that will be effective against already resistant bacteria.
  6. Increasing public awareness on when and how best to take antibiotics. Sanitary and hygienic practices should also be improved to reduce the spread of infectious diseases and subsequent demand for antibiotics.
  7. Use of alternative treatments aside antibiotics such as Vaccination, Phage therapy, Lysin treatment and exploitation of predatory bacteria to kill infectious pathogens.

Take responsibility. Controlling antibiotic resistance is a collective effort that starts with YOU.

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