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Antibiotic resistance: What is it and why it should give you the heebie jeebies

3 minute read
Girl holding her antibiotic medication on a couch

When it comes to taking antibiotics, we’ve all heard the warnings.

‘Only take antibiotics when it’s absolutely necessary’

But why is it so important to use these types of drugs sparingly?

The World Health Organization has released a report that labels antibiotic resistance as a "global health security threat" saying, "a post-antibiotic era – in which common infections and minor injuries can kill – far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century."

We like to keep things simple, so we’ve broken down antibiotic resistance and explained how it could affect you. *Spoiler* it’s pretty scary stuff.

What is antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotics are a type of medicine that kills or stops the growth of bacteria. It’s used to treat things like whooping cough, pneumonia, some ear infections and urinary tract infections – basically any sort of disease or infection caused by bacteria.

Since antibiotics were discovered in the 1940s, they have saved millions of lives. However, because they’ve been used so much, bacteria are becoming resistant to them.

Antibiotic resistance happens when bacteria mutates its genes after coming into contact with antibiotics. Bacteria changes its makeup, so it can survive.

But, the problem doesn’t stop there.

These cunning microorganisms can then share their mutated genes with other bacteria, meaning the resistant germs form a new strain of ‘unstoppable’ bacteria.

The more antibiotics we use the more chances bacteria has of becoming resistant.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology created a video that shows just how quickly bacteria can evolve to become resistant to antibiotics.

Credit: Harvard Medical School

Why is antibiotic resistance so scary?

Imagine a world where common infections or minor injuries can become life threatening, simply because there’s no medicine available to treat it.

A paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia by members of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases warned that the overuse of antibiotics could mean that simple childhood infections could be life-threatening. Treatments like chemotherapy and organ transplants would no longer be possible if disease causing bacteria mutate.

In simple terms, if we don’t step up our health game, the human race could be in serious trouble.

A post-antibiotic era is far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, it's a very real possibility for the 21st Century

One way we can make a difference is by limiting the amount of antibiotics we use. There’s been talk for decades of doctors overprescribing antibiotics and asking patients to take a course of antibiotics before surgery just as a routine precaution.

However, South Australia orthopaedic surgeon Dr Barney McCusker recently revealed that he had performed more than 427 fracture repairs without using antibiotics – and 425 of the surgeries had no subsequent infections.

Dr McCusker is hoping his study will "stimulate others to ask the question of whether we are using too many antibiotics."

So, next time you think you might need a course of antibiotics, it might be a good idea to talk to your health provider about how necessary the medication really is and whether there are any alternative treatments.

Who knows? You could just help save the human race.

Check out our article Is surgery always necessary? To cut or not to cut

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