In the battle against the bug, antibiotics have often been the sword with which to vanquish the microscopic beasties. Even those people that hold out against using medication and let their own immune systems attempt to triumph often succumb to the perceived “instant cure” that antibiotics seem to offer. What they don’t realize is that many of those who fall sick, take antibiotics, and then promptly recover, would have recovered even had they not taken antibiotics and just waited a few more days. We tend to self-diagnose, often incorrectly, and seek the cure before confirming the cause of the illness. Bronchitis, for example, can be caused by both bacteria and viruses.
Unfortunately, the abuse and misuse of antibiotics, which include over-prescription and failure to complete antibiotic treatment, have led to a rise in superbugs, bacteria that are resistant to all currently available antibiotic treatments. Recently, reports have been issued from European hospitals stating that there has been a frightening rise in superbugs in hospitals, leading to untreatable infections.
The biggest problem with antibiotics has been and still is their over-prescription. They are often prescribed for illnesses that are entirely viral based, such as the flu and colds, making the antibiotics nothing more than placebos against these infections.
Many people don’t understand that antibiotics do not work against viruses. As the name implies, antibiotics work against bacteria, not viruses. Like most living things, bacteria also evolve and as antibiotics kill off the susceptible colonies, resistant colonies expand to fill the space left behind. The more antibiotics are used, the faster the spread of more resistant colonies.
But why do doctors, who surely are aware of the consequences of this scenario, over-prescribe antibiotics? Part of the answer lies in the pressure exerted by the patient on the doctor. A physician is often overloaded with sick patients, especially in the winter when infection rates rise significantly. Patients often demand antibiotics, having experienced rapid recovery under bacterial infections and believing the same will occur with the current infection. Doctors will often prescribe what the patients want rather than what they need, in order to placate the patient and not have to spend too much time on each patient.
The speed of bacterial evolution caused by over-prescription of antibiotics is currently outstripping the speed with which new antibiotics are developed, which will lead to a catastrophic epidemic of untreatable superbugs. More sensible prescription and more appropriate use of antibiotics is essential if we are to keep up and stay healthy.