Antibiotics have become so familiar in our lives it’s sometimes hard to appreciate what a medical marvel they are.
Antibiotics and anesthesia are often cited as the two developments that led to the golden age of medicine we have experienced. Anesthesia kept patients unconscious for long periods during surgery which enabled surgeons to do more thorough surgeries with greater precision. And antibiotics eliminated the possibility of infections following surgery, which was formerly a common, and often deadly, occurrence.
Indeed, much of modern medicine is predicated on the availability of antibiotics. They treat infections that occur following major trauma or those that patients experience in intensive care. They are a vital means of preventing infections following surgeries both routine and complex and play a critical role in the treatment of life-threatening infections in patients with cancer or leukemia.
Unfortunately, the golden era of antibiotics is quickly coming to a close.
The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in human and veterinary medicine, including their role as growth promoters in intensive farming, have resulted in the rapid emergence of antibiotic resistance.
In Europe in 2007, the number of infections by multidrug-resistant bacteria was 400,000 and there were 25,000 attributable deaths.
In the United States alone, antibiotic-resistant infections are responsible for $20 billion per year in excess health care costs, $35 billion per year in societal costs and 8 million additional hospital stays per year.
The problem of resistance is compounded by the fact that we live in a global economy, resulting in a worldwide spread of antibiotic-resistant genes.
Also compounding the problem is the fact that the economics of pharmaceutical drug development offer little incentive for companies to develop new antibiotics, since the drugs are used on an episodic, rather than continual, basis.
Shahriar Mobashery, a Notre Dame researcher, is one of the world’s leading authorities on antibiotic resistance. Shahriar studies the mechanisms of resistance to antibiotics and the means to circumvent them; the development of novel antibiotics; the mechanism of action of these antibiotics; and complex microbial systems such as the outer core membrane and the cell wall.
Shahriar also works tirelessly to raise awareness of antibiotic resistance as a public health crisis. He recently joined with a group of the world’s leading scientists in academia and industry to author a paper that calls for strong steps to be taken to control the global crisis of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. The group issued a priority list of steps that need to be taken on a global scale to resolve the crisis.
These recommendations include increased international funding to enable scientists to track new antibiotic-resistance threats worldwide, as the World Health Organization and other agencies track influenza outbreaks. The group also calls for better control of antibiotic use, repurposing of old antibiotics to battle resistance and new alternatives to antibiotics.
It’s hard for us to imagine a time when antibiotics didn’t play a vital role in maintaining our health. If the scourge of antibiotic resistance isn’t addressed soon, we won’t have to imagine it; we’ll be living it.