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Antibiotic resistant bacteria
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 20 - 11 - 2015

In the arsenal of medications that doctors have to treat many illnesses, antibiotics loom very large indeed. Ever since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, many conditions caused by bacterial infections, which were once very often fatal, have been cured.
Antibiotics became a powerful life-saving weapon upon which doctors and patients have come to rely for almost a century. But not for much longer it seems. Antibiotics are losing their power to destroy bacteria which have steadily built up a resistance to them. The principle is not dissimilar to inoculation. We are given a minute dose of an infection which our body then attacks and destroys. That victory effectively gives that body immunity against further infection.
So it is proving with bacterial bodies. It has been known for a long time that bacteria were mutating and acquiring immunity to more and more antibiotics. Scientists in pharmaceutical companies have fought a constant and, once they found a new antibiotic, extremely lucrative battle to outpace what is a natural phenomenon. But there was an awkward awareness that the efficacy of all antibiotics would in the end be overwhelmed. The last silver bullet has been a powerful drug called colistin. This was the antibiotic that was used as a last resort for infections that would not clear up with anything else.
This week it was discovered that there were bacteria that had become resistant to colistin and which, more alarmingly, were able to quickly and easily spread their resistance to other bacteria.
That this frightening situation has arisen sooner than many scientists expected is due in large measure to the massive misuse of antibiotics. At its simplest, people with a common cold or flu have gone to the pharmacy and bought an antibiotic, even though the drug would be useless against both conditions. Flu is a virus. Antibiotics don't work on viruses.
By taking the antibiotic unnecessarily, they reduce its power to help when it really is needed in the face of a serious bacterial infection. Worse, they do not complete the prescribed course of tablets, meaning that the future efficacy of that particular drug within their body is further undermined.
As if this were not bad enough, antibiotics are also being used in animal husbandry. The intensive rearing of farm animals in artificial factory conditions robs them of the immunities that they would obtain naturally grazing in fields. To this is added the near certainty that one infected animal will pass a bacteria on to all the others. To protect against this, factory farmers have been dosing their beasts with antibiotics. This insane practice, based on short-term greed, means of course that the drugs being used are increasingly less effective. As if this were not bad enough, the pharmaceutic industry has not reserved some antibiotics exclusively for farm animals. The same drugs are being used on humans. And the sheer intensity of the standard application in factory farms has brought the world to a terrifying point.
Antibiotics are essential to surgery and are used as a support for many other treatments including cancer. Within a alarmingly short period of time, it now seems clear that this powerful defense against bacteria will have been breached. Factory farms will be destroyed by rampant disease. The whole concept of intensive animal husbandry may have to be abandoned while the human race finds itself facing the same deadly bacterial dangers as before 1928.


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