On 18th November it is European Antibiotic Awareness Day (link to UK resources). There has been a lot of coverage in the media in the last 12 months about concerns that we are going to run out of antibiotics – including from the World Health Organisation. There are a number of reasons for this, including over prescribing by doctors, not completing the course by patients, as well as increased use in farming. The threat is that we may suddenly find ourselves unable to treat what were previously very treatable infections as they develop resistance to the antibiotics we have. Antibiotics are very expensive to research and develop, and don’t make pharmaceutical companies as much money as other drugs, so they are not that interested in creating more.
However, this is not a new thing. For at least 10 years we have heard about the rise of hospital superbugs, such as MRSA (or the MRSA virus in some parts of the American press – so very wrong on so many levels). And I know all about that, because when I was in hospital in 2005, I picked up MRSA. It was detected after a second emergency operation. I was stuck in a hospital bed, with staples right down my middle when a military officer appeared and drew the curtains around my bed. They told me they were from the infection control team, and that I had MRSA. Now, at that time I was less aware than I am now, and I asked them (and please bear in mind I was not in a great place at this point, being about a month into my hospital stay) if I was going to die. That is what I knew about people in hospital with MRSA – they died.
Thankfully, the Daily Mail is usually wrong and I was assured that I was not going to die, but would be given treatment. I was moved into a side room and barrier nursed for the rest of my stay. Part of the treatment was a very potent antibiotic called vancomycin, which is given through a drip. It is nasty stuff, and after every three doses I had to have a new cannula fitted because it felt like it was burning my veins. I had to wash in a special antibacterial wash, and apply a nasal gel. I eventually managed to get two clear swabs a week apart, and a nice sticker on my hospital file. I’ve had to be retreated several times too.
Actually, 30% of the population carry MRSA. It’s only a problem if you have an open wound but can be easily spread. It is why visitors (and staff and patients) in hospital are asked to use hand gel – and do ask them too if you are a patient.
So how do super bugs become super? Ever had a course of antibiotics and not finished the course because you felt better after a few days? Or pestered your GP for antibiotics for something that was probably a viral infection? Do you love antibacterial everything? Well, collectively all of us who have are in part responsible. Not to mention increased antibiotic use in the food chain.
Remember evolution? When we only partially complete a course of antibiotics the bugs that were not killed get a little bit stronger. And eventually adapt to no longer be susceptible to the antibiotic. So a new one is required. And that brings us back to a lack of new antibiotics. There have already been cases of vMRSA. The zombie apocalypse could be infections we can no longer treat. You can however make a difference. Pledge to be an antibiotic guardian. Visit http://www.antibioticguardian.com and spread the word. Believe me, you don’t want to have to deal with MRSA.