After near-miraculous cures became possible in the 20th century thanks to the proliferation of antibiotics, the war against deadly microbes seemed over.
Today, however, researchers are alarmed by a rise in drug-resistant bacteria. Physicians and patients can no longer celebrate antibiotics as a magic bullet.
“Bacteria are living cells and they are driven to mutate, so they don’t die. We’ve known about superbugs for decades,” said epidemiologist Anil Mangla, director of public health and associate professor for biomedical and applied research at the new University of the Incarnate Word School of Medicine.
“I am very concerned about the spread of superbugs,” Mangla added. “The drugs we have right now are very useful, but if we see resistance to these medications it will cost the country untold dollars and lives to address the problem. It is a global issue.”
In fact, pharmaceutical companies’ new antibiotics development has slowed dramatically in recent years. According to the World Health Organization, “Antibiotics, in particular, have a poor return on investment because they are taken for a short period of time and cure their target disease. In contrast, drugs that treat chronic illness, such as high blood pressure, are taken daily for the rest of a patient’s life.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports each year at least 2 million Americans become infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics; as many as 23,000 die.
According to medical experts, superbugs evolve when antibiotics are overprescribed. The good bacteria are killed off in large numbers, while the bad bacteria mutate and gain immunity. Superbugs also grow when patients fail to take antibiotics as directed or reduce daily dosage.
“Americans love antibiotics because they work when used properly,” said Thomas Schlenker, an associate professor of pediatrics at UIW’s medical school. “Even if the antibiotic doesn’t help, it makes parents feel good.”
Added Schlenker, “The key is the physician who writes the prescriptions. They have to be able to explain to patients when antibiotics are appropriate and when they are not. It would be good if parents realized most ear infections, most sore throats, and all colds, are not caused by bacteria, but rather viruses, which are not touched by antibiotics.”
Theresa Willis, a pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio Primary Care clinic at Dominion Crossing, echoed Schlenker’s view.
“I talk to parents every day about when antibiotics are called for and when they are not,” Willis said. “Antibiotic stewardship is important. My responsibility as a physician is to give antibiotics when they are warranted and not to prescribe them when they are not warranted, despite pressure from some parents who want them for their children.”
There’s some optimism. Medical researchers, both in Europe and nationally, report new breakthroughs in tests of potential “super drugs” to counter superbugs, though more work is needed.