Author: Karen Liu
Editor: Vincent Chang
Artists: Denise Suarez
Imagine showing up to the emergency room with infections, but every antibiotic the doctors administer has no use. The infection rapidly disperses throughout the hospital, spreading to patients and nurses until the whole hospital is infected. This terrifying situation is not just part of the imagination–it can happen as a result of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem worldwide especially with the rise of new technology. In the United States, 2.8 million people are infected with some sort of antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and over 35,000 of those people result in death.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs assigned to kill them. How does this happen? We can think about it in terms of natural selection. In a population, certain bacteria can develop mutations that make them resistant to antibiotics. So when an antibiotic is used, most bacteria are killed except the ones with mutations. They survive and pass on their mutation to further generations. Because they have a special adaptation, they have an increased chance to survive and reproduce. A common misconception is that using antibiotics causes resistant bacteria. This is incorrect because antibiotic use only accelerates the process; the resistance occurs naturally because mutations are random.
As bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, scientists constantly develop newer and stronger drugs to kill those bacteria. The use of the newly created antibiotics will accelerate the process by allowing bacteria with the antibiotic resistance mutation to survive and reproduce. Therefore, scientists will once again have to produce a new drug that is even stronger. This cycle creates a positive feedback loop that is a growing problem in our society.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is currently one of the most common examples of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It is difficult to treat and also highly contagious. Because MRSA is transmittable through skin-through-skin contact, it becomes a major concern in hospitals. Not everyone who carries MRSA has signs of infection, so contaminated hands from one healthcare worker can quickly spread from patient to patient.
For instance, a large outbreak of MRSA occurred in three hospitals in East Northamptonshire from 1991 to 1992 where 400 patients were colonized or infected.
To prevent and control this issue, people can limit their antibiotic use and only take them if prescribed by a healthcare professional. Preventing infections by regularly washing hands can also help. Most of the time, when antibiotics fail, patients have to be transferred to more expensive machines that are expensive and can be a burden to families financially. Therefore, we should all take action to prevent a post-antibiotic era, where even minor infections or injuries can be deadly.
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“Antibiotic Resistance.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/antibiotic-resistance.
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Staphylococcus Aureus Caused by a New Phage-Type (EMRSA-16).” The Journal of Hospital
Infection, U.S. National Library of Medicine, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7759837/.