Misuse of antibiotics has given rise to drug-resistant strains of bacteria, which are responsible for life-threatening diseases that claim thousands of lives every year
By Dr Manu Chaudhary
Until a few decades ago, antibiotics were considered to be “wonder drugs” because they worked like magic against deadly diseases. But today we are at the threshold of an era where bacterial infections might no longer be successfully treated with the currently available antibiotics. Owing to the overuse and misuse of antibiotics, bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to these drugs. Drug-resistant strains of bacteria, which are developing at a faster pace than the solutions to tackle them, are responsible for life-threatening diseases which claim thousands of lives every year.
The last class of antibiotics was developed way back in 1987, and there is no new antibiotic in sight to deal with complications caused by drug-resistant bacterial strains. In such a scenario, the best option we have is to contain the spread and growth of resistant bacteria through the proper use of antibiotics till a new antibiotic comes our way.
An increase in the frequency of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), as the phenomenon is called, has been observed for all major classes of antibiotics used to treat a wide variety of respiratory illnesses, skin disorders, sexually transmitted diseases and hospital-acquired infections. The WHO has rightly warned that “many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, could kill unabated”. A critical question hangs over the future: What if antibiotics do not work anymore? It is a grave public threat which calls for urgent action.
The problem has reached alarming proportions in India, where antibiotic sales registered a 40% increase between 2005 and 2010. There is an urgent need to ban the over-the-counter sale of antibiotics to prevent their misuse by patients indulging in self-medication. Many patients insist on antibiotics for viral infections like common cold, against which these medicines are ineffective. Then there are patients who do not bother to finish the course, which again leads to infection and, in the bargain, stronger bacteria that respond only to a higher dose. This cycle sets free increasingly resistant strains of bacteria with lethal potential.
Using antibiotics without doctor’s prescription could worsen your condition and a time may come when your body would stop responding to these medicines when you need them the most.The excessive misuse of antibiotics for common ailments caused by seemingly harmless microbes has further worsened the situation. People need to understand that every disease is not because of a bacterial infection and antibiotics are not the solution to all diseases.
It is worrisome that hospitals are turning into hotbeds of infection. India is in a particularly tight spot due to poor hygiene and sanitation. As high as 70% of the ICU patients surveyed in India carry bacteria immune to multiple antibiotics. Bacteria in hospital settings are much more resistant and deadlier because of frequent use of these drugs. Poor hospital hygiene practices, absence of infection control protocols and lack of awareness among the nursing staff and patients are the major problem areas.
India still does not have a national policy on the sale of antibiotics. But some NGOs like the Emerging Antimicrobial Resistance Society (EARS) have taken up this issue as a social cause. It is not only creating awareness about the right use of antibiotics, but has also developed a software (eBIN) to compile data on resistance with the help of medical institutions. The government should support these efforts by initiating a national survey on the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance. Since the role of antibiotic innovation in stemming the tide of resistant bacteria cannot be overstated, the government should also fund antibiotic research and collaborate with pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs. Doctors, pharmaceutical firms, government agencies, NGOs and chemists should all join hands to promote the judicious use of antibiotics. We owe it to our future generations.
(The writer, a scientist working on antimicrobial resistance, is the Chairperson of the Emerging Antimicrobial Resistance Society (EARS), an NGO)
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