America is experiencing an antibiotic crisis. Superbugs are on the rise infecting two million Americans each year, and killing 37,000.
In 2010, Peggy Lillis died from taking an antibiotic after she had a routine root canal. The antibiotic killed off good bacteria in her stomach, which allowed bad bacterium called C. difficile to spread in her body.
According to Consumer Reports, the 56-year-old kindergarten teacher from Brooklyn, N.Y. was giving an antibiotic called clindamycin, which was intended to prevent a dental infection. However, clindamycin wiped out the good bacteria in her gut that normally keeps bad bacteria in check.
Peggy’s belly no longer had protection, which resulted in harmful bacteria to spread in her stomach. The harmful bacteria caused a severe intestinal infection. Physicians had to perform emergency surgery to remove her colon. Sadly, Peggy’s son, Christian said, “Within 10 days of taking those pills, my mother was dead.”
Millions of lives have been saved with antibiotics, since penicillin was first prescribed close to 75 years ago. However, dangerous and unexpected consequences happen to millions of people as a result of doctors prescribing the drugs without restraint. Each year, close to 2.25 million Americans get severely sick from taking antibiotics, and 37,000 die.
Antibiotics harm people in two ways. First, antibiotics disrupt the body’s natural balance of good and bad bacteria. One type of the bad bacteria is called C. difficile. Nearly 250,000 people get C. diff infections linked to antibiotic use each year. Additionally, 14,000 people die from C. diff infections after taking antibiotics.
The second way antibiotics harm people is from overuse of the drugs. Overusing antibiotics generates superbugs, an urgent, worldwide health concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two million people get sick from a superbug, and nearly 23,000 die each year.
The White House released an extensive plan, which outlines steps to combat drug-resistant bacteria. The plan includes three “urgent” and several “serious” threats.
Brian K. Coombes, PhD, of McMaster University in Ontario told WebMD, “Superbugs should be a concern to everyone. Antibiotics are the foundation on which all modern medicine rests. Cancer chemotherapy, organ transplants, surgeries, and childbirth all rely on antibiotics to prevent infections. If you can’t treat those, then we lose the medical advances we have made in the last 50 years.”
Health experts say things could get worse, in the immediate future. The CDC reports the threat of antibiotic resistance. According to the CDC, “Antibiotic resistance is a worldwide problem. New forms of antibiotic resistance can cross international boundaries and spread between continents with ease. Many forms of resistance spread with remarkable speed. World health leaders have described antibiotic resistant microorganisms as “nightmare bacteria” that “pose a catastrophic threat” to people in every country in the world.”
Patients play an essential role in proper antibiotic use. Consumer Reports recommends the following guidelines for patients.
- Know when to say “no” to antibiotics. If your doctor says you don’t have a bacterial infection, don’t insist. Ask about other treatments that can help you feel better, such as a pain reliever, throat soother, antihistamine, or decongestant. (Read more about when antibiotics are, and aren’t needed.)
- Ask whether you can fight it off on your own. If bacteria are the cause but your symptoms are mild, ask about trying to fight off the infection without drugs.
- Use antibiotic creams sparingly. Even antibiotics applied to the skin can lead to resistant bacteria. So use over-the-counter ointments containing bacitracin and neomycin only if dirt remains after cleaning with soap and water.
- Avoid infections in the first place. That means staying up to date on vaccinations. In addition, it’s imperative to wash your hands thoroughly and regularly, especially before preparing or eating food, before and after treating a cut or wound, and after using the bathroom, sneezing, coughing, and handling garbage. Plain soap and water is best. Avoid antibacterial hand soaps and cleaners, which may promote resistance.
Every time a new antibiotic is developed, bacteria evolve to wave it off. According to Jeffrey S. Gerber, M.D., an infectious disease expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “The ability of bacteria to adapt allows them to become resistant very quickly. Bacteria have found a way to become resistant to every antibiotic man has made.”
People spread the bacteria when touching surfaces, hugging, kissing, and shaking hands. A person can infect a family member, friend, co-worker, and others, even if he or she is not sick. Dr. Gerber says, “Entire intensive care units have had to be shut down because of these superbugs. As a result, “people are dying of infections that we have zero antibiotics left to treat.”