Outwit The Smart Bugs

The drugs we rely on to stop bacterial infections are losing their power.

Outwit The Smart Bugs
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Since penicillin first became available in the 1940s, antibiotics have been hailed as wonder drugs, capable of wiping out dangerous bacteria that cause infectious diseases. But according to health experts worldwide, we're facing a serious public health crisis: widespread antibiotic resistance. Some of our best medicine is no longer effective against common bacterial infections. The microbes that make us sick have, in effect, outwitted the drugs that make us well again.

How bugs got smarter
Antibiotic resistance began almost as soon as doctors prescribed the first dose. That's because microbes have a natural ability to mutate and become resistant to drugs. It's a microbe's way of protecting itself from extinction. As early as the 1950s, Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium that causes pneumonia, skin infections, and toxic shock syndrome, was becoming resistant to penicillin. Over the next few decades, bacteria that cause pneumonia, gonorrhea, and intestinal infections also built up resistances. Meanwhile, drug researchers were spending less time developing antibiotics and more time finding treatments for other conditions. By the 1990s, the infections were winning again--and in some cases, no new drugs had been developed to fight them.

How it affects you
Every time we use or misuse an antibiotic, we create an opportunity for microbes to mutate, become resistant, and spread. You can catch a resistant bug from someone else or you can develop a resistant infection yourself, even after you begin a course of antibiotics. That's because microbes may spontaneously mutate and become resistant during an infection.

An article in The Lancet reported that S. aureus is now the most common antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the world, having infected as many as 52 million people. Meanwhile, strains of the bacteria Haemophilus influenza, which causes sinusitis and ear infections; Streptococcus pneumoniae, which can cause pneumonia, ear infections, and meningitis; Helicobacter pylori, which causes ulcers; and E. coli, which causes urinary tract and other infections, have all become multidrug resistant. If you develop one of these conditions, you may have to try several antibiotics before you find one that works.