Meredith Weston is a recent graduate of The Catholic University of America where she received her master’s degree in biotechnology.
For parents, it’s the confusion you feel after hearing your pediatrician say “no, you can’t have an antibiotic for your child’s ear infection.” Frustrated, you sit there, your child writhing in pain, listening to the doctor’s spiel about “toughing it out” and “waiting and watching,” all the while wondering what on earth the rise of antibiotic resistance has to do with your child’s discomfort. We’re all familiar with the scary terms heard on the news—MRSA, multidrug resistant bacteria, superbugs—but what does it all really mean and how will your family’s health be affected? And, most importantly, what is being done to fix it?
Antibiotic resistance is a serious worldwide public health problem that has grown exponentially in recent years and shows no signs of slowing. It is a form of drug resistance whereby a bacterial species is able to survive after exposure to antibiotics. These bacteria are then termed multidrug resistant or, more commonly, superbugs. The resistance occurs when strains of bacteria in the human body become resistant to drugs due to the improper use of antibiotics. These strains of bacteria are responsible for infections, and if they cannot be killed by antibiotics, the infection will spread, resulting in complications such as loss of limbs, sepsis, or even death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these infections are tied to an estimated 100,000 deaths each year and add as much as $30 billion a year in medical costs. Every day in our hospitals, people die from complications brought on by infections that used to be curable, and the pipeline for new antibiotics is drying up.
Currently, efforts are being made to impede the emerging trend of superbugs. The Obama administration is moving on the development and research of new antibiotics. This includes fronts like setting up new research networks and investing tens of millions of dollars in private drug companies. Just last month, The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) announced an agreement with a major pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline , where HHS will pay $40 million to aid in the development of medications used specifically to combat antibiotic resistance.
In addition to these efforts, federal health officials are pushing to speed up the approval process specifically for new antibiotics targeted at patients with life-threatening infections. However, lowering the approval standards for antibiotics is controversial and, some believe, a potentially fatal mistake. If the standards are lowered, how can we be sure the new drug is safe and effective? Furthermore, if the new approval process allows for smaller populations in new drug studies, what will happen when the new drug is in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people? Supporters of a loosened approval process have proposed the idea of designing smaller clinical studies to demonstrate safety and efficacy in new drugs meant solely for patients suffering from drug-resistant infections, but how to make sure only those patients get such drugs after approval is a problem that has yet to be addressed.
At the most basic level, this is a battle between humans and bacteria. The bacteria have the advantage of rapid adaptation to their environment and we have our boundless ingenuity. There is no single answer to this complex issue and only two things are for certain: change is needed and the time for action is now.