What We Can Do About Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

Credit: Rafe Swan / Getty Images

A timeline in the 2013 report on antibiotic resistance from the Centers for Disease Control illustrates the ongoing arms race between bacteria and the medical community. A two-column graph shows when certain drugs became ineffectual treating an infection, and then when a more powerful drug was introduced. A staph infection resistant to penicillin was identified in 1940 — three years before Alexander Fleming’s wonder drug was even in widespread use — and a penicillin-resistant Strep crops up in 1965. In response, new drugs, like methicillin (1960) and vancomycin (1972), were introduced and eventually phased out for fighting Staph as well (in 1962 and 2002, respectively). The most alarming aspect of the chart, though, is half of history’s antibiotic resistant bacteria — 8 of the 16— have been discovered in the last 20 years. Bacteria are getting more resistant to antibiotics much more quickly, and we’re running out of ways to counteract them.

That’s why, a couple of weeks ago, President Barack Obama asked Congress to more than double the amount of money spent each year fighting antibiotic resistant bacteria, from $450 million to $1.2 billion. According to the Centers for Disease Control, around 2 million people are infected each year with antibiotic resistant bacteria; 250,000 of them end up in the hospital, and for around 23,000 the infection proves fatal. "We take antibiotics for granted for a lot of illnesses that can be deadly and debilitating," Obama said. "I'm urging Congress to pass a budget that will help save lives."

The president has outlined a few methods for reversing the trend. He wants federal agencies on high alert to catch potential outbreaks, and more research and development investment for new drugs. At the same time, Obama wants to promote a broad effort to reduce the overall use of antibiotics, because it’s mainly unnecessary administration — in humans and animals — that have gotten us into this mess.  

Antibiotics are supposed to kill the kinds of bacteria that cause diseases like salmonella, skin infections, and strep throat. When they’re incorrectly prescribed, however, for viruses like the flu or common colds (by some estimates half of the 7 million pounds of antibiotics prescribed to patients each year is unnecessary), the natural bacteria that aids digestion and fights infection gets killed off instead. All that remains are a few resistant strands, now able to flourish, that eventually spread through human contact. Of course, doctors are responsible for prescribing antibiotics correctly, but it’s not always that simple. Lab work can take a few days — time that’s not always available in the face of a spreading infection. In such cases, most doctors aren’t willing to take a risk, so they make an educated guess.

The other big culprit of antibiotic overkill is the agriculture industry. To promote growth and prevent disease, the nation’s poultry, livestock, and dairy farmers dose the food supply with 29 million pounds of antibiotics. In the process, farms are essentially harvesting antibiotic resistance bacteria, which then gets into the food supply and spreads naturally off site. The Food and Drug Administration has offered suggestions for phasing out the practice over the next three years — similar efforts have been implemented in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands — but it remains to be seen whether big agriculture will budge. It blocked a similar effort to stem the tide of antibiotics on farms back in 1977.  

Potentially somewhere in our guts, hospitals, or feedlots, there is a "superbug” too powerful for existing medicine. If allowed to spread, pneumonia, skin infections, even routine surgeries, become much more critical. It would be a return to the dark days of disease and pestilence these pills were supposed to have wiped out. Obama is trying to get ahead of the curve — both by developing new drugs and limiting the means for antibiotic resistant bacteria to form.