The 20th century may have been the age of wonder in the fight against infectious diseases with the discovery, first of penicillin and then other antibiotics and antimicrobials, but will the 21st century become the age of wonder of the resilience of microbes, of the development of “superbugs,” to these treatments?
The resistance of microbes to antibiotics, anti-fungals and other treatments is not a new phenomenon, having begun more than 60 years ago, but such resistance is a problem that is growing with time. With each exposure of a microbe to a drug that treats it comes another opportunity for that microbe to develop a resistance to that drug. This is especially problematic when it comes to bacteria because it is bacteria that are that cause of so many potentially dangerous infections in humans.
Infections that used to be readily treatable and cured with antibiotics such as some types of pneumonia, urinary tract and wound infections have now become lethal in some instances. In some ways, the world of medicine is going back to the pre-antibiotic era, when physicians were helpless to treat infectious illnesses.
Fortunately, antibiotic-resistant bacteria have not yet reached the prevalence that bacteria enjoyed before the discovery of antibiotics, but preventive action is needed worldwide from both the public and private sectors, from health care to general industry to halt the progression of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Some public health officials have already sounded the alarm, likening the threat of the potential increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria to the threat of terrorism worldwide.
Recent discoveries in both China and the United States of antibiotic-resistant bacteria raise the bar on concerns in the scientific and medical community for the potential of infection-causing bacteria to mutate – and to pass those antibiotic-resistant mutations onto other bacterial strains. In the case of these two different superbugs, the mutation is within a portion of the bacteria’s DNA, allowing the mutation to be passed between types of bacteria such as E. coli and Klebsiella.
This type of transference ability complicates and increases the potential possibilities of how bacteria will be able to mutate and develop perhaps even more resistance to antibiotics until the entire known spectrum of antibiotics could be rendered useless. It is not only this potential that calls out for the development of new antibiotics, but the potential that has always existed since antibiotics were first used.
Every time an antibiotic medication is used, in whatever application – human or otherwise – is an opportunity for microbes to begin to mutate, to change in whatever way is necessary to become immune to the effects of that antibiotic. Time and frequency of use of an antibiotic are the weapons of bacteria and other microbes to become different in order to survive. The microbes have their own war of survival that they fight; this is one war every human on the globe must be determined to win.