Antibiotic resistance: what are the consequences?
The overuse of antibiotics in medicine has led to more resistant bacteria. In the meantime, antibiotic resistance has now become a leading cause of death. How you can protect yourself and others.
Antibiotics: the miracle cure
About 80 years ago, penicillin, the first antibiotic, came onto the market, making it significantly easier to treat bacterial infections. Because antibiotic medication kills bacteria or stops their growth, commonly fatal infections such as pneumonia no longer posed the same danger.
However, antibiotics become obsolete as bacteria develop resistance. Resistant genes form part of bacteria’s natural defence systems and they existed long before human antibiotic therapy. But experts are now observing a rapid increase in resistant genes, especially in those germs that live in close contact with humans. Pathogens are also becoming increasingly multi-resistant, i.e. resistant to several antibiotics at once. This makes infections very difficult or even impossible to treat.
Resistance can have fatal consequences
If an infection isn’t treated properly, in many cases it will lead to death. Antibiotic resistance is now one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Scientists estimate that around 4.95 million deaths a year are linked to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And it’s the inhabitants of poorer regions, especially sub-Saharan Africa, who are significantly more affected. In Switzerland, experts calculate that 300 people die each year due to resistant bacteria.
Persons particularly at risk
People with immune deficiencies or implants are more likely to suffer from infections with bacteria that are almost impossible to treat. This is because the risk of a colonisation leading to infection is greater among these high-risk patients. When colonising, the bacteria are located on the skin or mucous membrane of the person and multiply. Infection and disease will occur as soon as the bacteria enter the human body.
Immunodeficient people often spend more time in hospital environments. This means they have more contact with sick people, which increases their risk of coming into contact with resistant pathogens. Doctors refer to this as hospital infections.
Where does antibiotic resistance come from?
The fact that ever more bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics is, to a large extent, self-inflicted. The Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) warns that the medication is used too often and inappropriately. Especially before the discovery of antibiotic resistance, it was common in human medicine to prescribe antibiotics as a matter of course. The consumption of antibiotics is now dropping, but the issue is still problematic.
Use of antibiotics in animal farming
Far more alarming is the widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture and fisheries. Due to their extremely low cost, antibiotics are usually cheaper than hygiene measures or animal-friendly farming practices. Administering antibiotics to animals leads to resistant germs in animal barns and fish farms. The germs then enter our bodies when we consume animal products. Experts are therefore calling for a reduction in the use of antibiotics in farming.
Globalisation as a driving force
Animals and humans can transmit resistant pathogens to each other and among each other. In the case of bacteria, there’s a danger that the resistance properties will be passed on to other bacteria. Because of this, and the rise in travel caused by globalisation, resistant bacteria are spreading worldwide. Experts speak of a globalisation of the bacterial ecosystem. The problem, therefore, affects the whole world.
What you can do:
- use antibiotics only for bacterial infections. Antibiotics are of no use against viruses.
- only take medication that the doctor prescribes. Never take action into your own hands.
- only take prescribed antibiotics in the given dosage.
- never stop antibiotic therapy prematurely, even if the symptoms of the disease have already disappeared.
- dispose of leftover medication and don’t store it to use later.
Fight resistance with new antibiotics
While the spread of resistant pathogens is rapid, research on new antibiotics is making only slow progress. New antibiotic groups can help treat infection caused by resistant – and especially multi-resistant – bacteria, thereby combating the current wave of resistance.
Current state of research
However, basic research into new medications is very expensive and the prospect of profitability is limited. Firstly, because prices are low; secondly, because new active substances always become reserve antibiotics first. They’re only used when all other conventional substances fail. Research is unattractive for the pharmaceutical industry, which is why there are no new antibiotic groups on the horizon.
Prevent resistance: what you can do
Other ways must be found to stem the tide of resistance. What is important is to prevent infections in the first place and limit the use of antibiotics. ABS (Antibiotic Stewardship) is a US project set up to prevent resistance in hospitals. To ensure antibiotic therapies in hospitals are as limited and as short as possible, nurses are more closely involved and experts are consulted.
If you have an infectious disease, keep your distance from others and stay at home until you’re cured.
Keep wounds clean and protected. This prevents the entry of bacteria and therefore infection.
Bacteria are mainly transmitted as contact infections. Therefore: wash your hands regularly – always after using the toilet, before cooking, before eating, etc.
Prepare meat and fish separately from food that is not cooked (cooking kills germs). Afterwards, clean the knife, board and hands thoroughly with hot water and soap.