Infectious Diseases & Antibiotic Resistance – A Growing Global Threat!

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Have you ever taken antibiotics to combat a bacterial illness? Of course you have. Antibiotics are known to work quickly and effectively. However, what if the medicine you take fails to cure you? When the bacteria causing the illness do not react to antibiotics and as such there is no effect on the illness it is known as antibiotic resistance. Let us explore what this problem is, and why it is now a global threat.

Antibiotic Resistance

What is Antibiotic Resistance?

Antibiotics essentially treat bacterial infections. Bacterial infections are caused by microbes and spread through:

  • Air (coughing, sneezing)
  • Touch (kissing, sexual intercourse)
  • Contact with contaminated items (food, water, surfaces), and animals

Some common examples of bacterial infection are Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs), ENT (Ear, Nose, throat) Infections, whooping cough, tuberculosis, salmonella, bacterial pneumonia, bacterial meningitis etc.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when the antibiotics or the medicines designed to kill the bacteria are rendered ineffective by them. In other words, the bacteria are strong and can withstand and battle  away the therapeutic effects of the antibiotics, making the person even more severely ill.

The main problem underlying antibiotic resistance is a behavioural one – it has to do with the way patients use and doctors prescribe the dosages of antibiotics.

How Does Antibiotic Resistance Arise?

There is a certain amount of antibiotic resistance that occurs in nature. After all, the drug-resistant bacteria did not spring out of nowhere. However, the main cause of antibiotic resistance is the misuse of antibiotics by people.

When people use antibiotics:

  • To treat problems that do not require the use of such drugs
  • Take more or less dosages of antibiotics than is required and prescribed by the doctor

then the medication tends to kill off only the weaker bacteria.

As a result, the bacteria that is stronger and resistant to the antibiotic grow in number.
Since, the stronger bacteria fight the antibiotics and survive, they now become familiar with the battle plan of the “enemy” or in other words they come to know how the antibiotics work and hence they can easily render the antibiotics useless and defeat the medicinal effect.

They continue to multiply and worse, continue spreading through air, physical touch, and any other form of contact. This means that instead of diminishing in number or dying, the bacteria continue to thrive.

This poses a serious problem because the infections caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria are often more virulent and very difficult to cure. This is because as the bacteria multiply and grow stronger they keep mutating making it difficult for the researchers to come up with effective cures.

As more and more people come in contact with such bacteria through inhaling or by touching infected people or contaminated surfaces, the drug-resistant strains of bacteria keep multiplying, and growing more resilient.

Think of it this way: in the height of summer, many mosquitoes fly into your bedroom. As a result, you start using a mosquito patch on a daily basis. The weaker mosquitoes cannot handle the effects of the patch and they die. However, the stronger ones remain behind to attack you. More importantly, the stronger ones remain behind to breed and pass their strength onto their offspring. As a result, with time, the mosquito patches you use do no work, as the offspring are immune to their effects.  Now, until drug development companies develop a stronger patch, you are vulnerable to the mosquitoes and their diseases.

Antibiotic resistance has become global threat now. Diseases and infections such as pneumonia, salmonellosis, blood poisoning, gonorrhoea, and tuberculosis are reportedly becoming more difficult to treat. This is because the antibiotics that were traditionally used to treat these problems have grown ineffective as the newer generations of the bacteria are gradually growing immune to them.

Why Are Children Affected the Most?

Children are affected the most by this problem due to three main reasons:

  • Children, particularly toddlers and infants, do not have very strong immune systems. As a result, they are already susceptible to getting sick easily. Health conditions like pneumonia are extremely common in infants and toddlers. With the spread of drug-resistant bacteria, children are most likely to fall very sick.
  • Children are still at an age where they require vaccines. Vaccines protect humans throughout their lives from major life-threatening diseases. However, drug-resistant bacteria can also be resistant to the vaccine, rendering it completely useless. As a result, children are unprotected and highly prone to dangerous illnesses.
  • From a behavioural point of view, children come in contact with the most number of germs. They are prone to putting random objects in their mouth, playing in the dirt, and coming into contact with other sick children in schools or day-cares. This simply makes them more susceptible to illnesses.

What are the Implications of Antibiotic Resistance a Decade or Two Later?

Before medical technology hit a certain level of advancement, humans and animals were highly susceptible to contracting common infections that would prove to be fatal. With the advancement in medical field, and in achieving key milestones such the invention of penicillin, human fatality rates dropped significantly.

With antibiotic resistant bacteria growing and spreading all over the world, the chances of humans returning to an age where even the common cold could prove to be dangerous are quite high. This is because with the passing of time as bacteria become stronger the most commonly prescribed drugs may not remain effective.

How Can People Counter Antibiotic Resistance?

Antibiotic resistance occurs due to the misuse of antibiotics. Thus, individuals need to start being more mindful about the drugs they use to treat their problems. The following ways may help with the prevention and control of antibiotic resistance:

  • Only use antibiotic medications prescribed by a doctor. Do not use antibiotic drugs for common ailments without doctor’s advice! Never ever self-medicate!
  • You should not share your prescribed drugs with other people.
  • Take the dose the doctor prescribes. Do not take antibiotic drugs simply because you have a few more capsules left!
  • Prevent the spread of bacteria by ensuring that you wash your hands on a regular basis. Prepare your food in a hygienic manner as food-borne bacterial infections are also drug-resistant.
  • Ensure your children are vaccinated on time to keep them from falling sick.
  • Practise safe sex! Use condoms and make sure you or your partner are not infected.
  • Finally, nothing better than adopting a healthy lifestyle. Eat healthy food, and exercise regularly. This will strengthen your immune system and keep all diseases at bay.

How Can Healthcare Professionals Counter Antibiotic Resistance?

Healthcare professionals play a large role in countering antibiotic resistance. Some of the ways that they can do so are:

  • Ensuring total hygiene to prevent infections from spreading in the clinics and hospitals.
  • Following up with the latest guidelines for prescribing medications, particularly antibiotic ones. Do not prescribe antibiotics to patients who don’t need them, no matter how much they insist they need it to get better fast!
  • Explaining the correct uses of antibiotics to patients so that you can prevent misuse. Stress on the correct dosage and explain why they should not take less or more than the required dosage.
  • Explaining ways to prevent infection to patients so that the drug-resistant bacteria does not spread easily.

Conclusion:

It is natural to want to get better quickly when you are sick. No one likes to be sick! However, as much as possible refrain from using antibiotics to cure your ailments. Do not give your children the same, unless their paediatrician expressly has asked you to!

News on Infectious Diseases:

Dengue and Chikangunya Amongst Infections That May Dominate in 2019

– 18th Jan 2019

We have all been familiar with the growing instances of seasonal infections becoming perennial. 2019 is no different, at the onset of this year, here are a few infections and diseases that you may hear more from:

1. Dengue

As pollution and water stagnation on surfaces become even more apparent, we will probably see a spike in the population of mosquitoes around us. A few years ago, dengue was a seasonal disease, generally active in the months of September and October, however, today Dengue has become perennial and any season which sees a peak in mosquito population brings with it the threat of dengue. Nearly 40,000 people were affected with Dengue by September 2018.

2. Chikungunya

Chikungunya is another disease which has been on constant rise with no apparent treatment. Chikungunya is also a long term disease, earlier the virus would affect the joints of a patient for 1-3 months, however, in the past year chikungunya virus has become more drug and treatment resistant and can keep on affecting the joints of an individual for over a year after the initial contraction of the disease. In 2018, nearly 42,000 cases of chikungunya were reported all over India, of these nearly 17,000 cases were detected in Karnataka itself.

3. Nipah Virus

Last year saw a national frenzy as Kerala saw a rise in the instances of Nipah Virus Diseases. There are several myths surrounding the disease, however, the Nipah Virus is a deadly virus which to this date has not found a treatment plan which can counter its effects in time. The disease claims lives within a few days of initial contraction. Bats are primary carriers of this virus, and the virus is transmitted through the consumption of the meat of pigs who feed on bad droppings. The lack of pork consumption is why the disease so far has been contained, and it was believed that the disease has even seen its end by the last week of November 2018, however, a new spate of cases was reported by the end of 2018.

4. Lung Diseases

As air pollution levels inmajor cities like Bangalore and Delhi come to an all time rise, cases of lung infections will also be on a rise. There will be increased cases of sinusitis, bronchitis, acute as well as chronic Asthma. In fact, doctors in Delhi are advising young parents to opt for moving out of Delhi as the air pollution levels are only going to cause long term damage to the lungs of a toddler.

5. All Year Round Seasonal Allergies

As air pollution levels rise, the suspended particulate matter in the air will also lead to an increase in the cases of all round seasonal allergies like throat infections and hay fever.

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