Antibiotic Resistance
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Antibiotic Resistance


Antibiotics have been hailed as wonder drugs, and are considered by many as one of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the 20th Century. It is this very popularity which has led to the demise of some of our leading antibiotics and now poses a new and very real health threat.

In the early years of antibiotic research and usage, bacterial resistance to antibiotics was not regarded as a serious problem. It was discovered, both through testing and through trial and error, that different bacterial infections responded well to specific antibiotics. If one antibiotic did not work to cure a particular infection, it would be discontinued and another would be applied. This discovery process eventually enabled physicians to accurately prescribe a particular antibiotic or group of antibiotics to treat a specific pathogen. Ultimately, a high level of confidence developed regarding use of antibiotics; this confidence led to widespread usage, complacency, and ultimately, misuse.

Antibiotic resistance usually develops when antibiotic usage is discontinued prematurely (i.e., before the allotted time required to completely eliminate an infection) or when antibiotics are prescribed indiscriminately to treat minor or non-bacterial infections. (Antibiotics are totally ineffective against viruses.) In recent years, other sources of resistance have also been identified and are under active study, including the considerable use of antibiotics at subtherapeutic levels in livestock feed to promote growth. Antibiotic resistance is now a widely recognized phenomenon and prescription of antibiotics is, for the most part, more carefully scrutinized. (A recent classic misapplication was the widespread and indiscriminate prescription of the broad-spectrum antibiotic Cipro in the U.S. following the post-9/11 anthrax scare.)

However, the genie is already out of the bottle. Some of our most prized and heralded antibiotics have been rendered practically worthless by new strains of resistant bacteria. Modern medical science has become extremely dependent upon antibiotics as a primary course of treatment for many infectious diseases. A mad race is on by pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics able to conquer resistant strains of bacteria responsible for such severe diseases as pneumonia and tuberculosis; for the moment, it appears that the “bugs” may be winning. It remains to be seen whether modern medical science can triumph over the tiny disease-causing organisms that seem so able to adapt to our efforts to eliminate them.


Authored by Kenneth L. Anderson.  Original article published 13 May 2003, updated 15 November 2003.


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