By Ricardo Ribas
Antibiotics and their history?
Antibiotics are a group of medicines used to treat and prevent infections and diseases caused by single cell microorganisms called bacteria. They act either by killing bacteria directly or by preventing them from dividing and reproducing. A limited number of antibiotics can also treat diseases caused by single-cell parasites called protozoa, but none of them are effective against viruses, the agents responsible for cold and flu.
There is evidence that antibiotics have been used for thousands of years to cure infections. Various plant extracts, herbs, honey and even animal faeces were used by earlier civilisations to treat bacterial infections. In ancient Egypt, for example, people used to apply moulded bread to treat infected wounds. Despite the fact that antibiotics have been used throughout history, was only in the 19th century, that scientists linked bacteria as the cause of some infections. Also, up until the 1930s, many people often died with minor bacterial infections and surgeries were very risky. The discovery of penicillin revolutionised medicine, when in 1928 Alexandre Fleming noticed that bacteria present in his culture plates have been killed by a type of mould that accidentally contaminated them. The specie of mould (fungus) that invaded Fleming’s plates was a Penicillium notatum, what subsequently led to the name of penicillin. Recognising the potential of this discovery, Fleming and his colleagues rapidly tried to commercialise it as a medicine, but it took over 10 years for the penicillin to be available in the market. The 1940s and 1950s was a great period for discovery of new antibiotics, but since then, not many new ones have been developed.
Despite the fact that antibiotics have changed the face of medicine in the 20th century, very soon after, scientists realised that bacteria could evolve and change overtime to become resistant to them, meaning that they were able to survive and grow in the presence of antibiotics that otherwise would kill them. Currently this is one of the biggest threats for global public health. As resistance occur worldwide, treatments are becoming less effective making it harder or even impossible to treat diseases such as pneumonia, gonorrhoea, blood poisoning, tuberculosis and others. According to the world health organisation, antibiotic resistance is responsible for 700.000 humans’ deaths around the world every year and these numbers are increasing, with some studies predicting that by 2050, it could reach 10 million yearly deaths, becoming the leading cause of mortality worldwide.
Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics naturally, but this process is very often fastened by the incorrect or overuse of antibiotics. This is a big reason for concern particularly because many countries do not follow treatment guidelines, allowing antibiotics to be over-prescribed and permitting their retail without medical prescription. Similarly, lack of sanitation and hygiene conditions in some hospitals, as well as the shortage of quick and reliable laboratory tests to identify infections, can further contribute to the increasing number of antibiotic resistance happening worldwide.
This is particularly concerning in veterinary medicine. In recent years, the increased number of pets and the requirement for their welfare has enhanced treatments for sick animals, and with it, the administration of antibiotics. More importantly, the increased demand of meat production as a result of the population growth, means that farmers are more reliable on antibiotics to treat and prevent diseases in their livestock. Furthermore, some countries still allow the routinely use of antibiotics to promote animal’s growth, making it a further reason for concern. It is believed that the meat industry on its own accounts for 73% of the global use of antibiotics. Additionally, the fact that farm animals are constantly under stress and often confined to overpopulated spaces, highly compromises their immune system making them more vulnerable to infections and increasing the risk of transmission. As such, animals often become reservoir of the resistant microorganisms increasing the chances of transmission to humans, either directly by close contact; during consumption of contaminated meat or through spread of the animal’s waste into the environmental surroundings.
Despite the fact that is important to incentive research to discover and develop new antibiotics, it is crucial to learn how to use them more effectively. Countries around the world should follow international guidelines to change the way they prescribe and use the antibiotics and should create actions to reduce the spread of infections, particularly in an era of easy travel.
It is also critical to restrict the use of unnecessary human antibiotics to promote animal growth and to prevent disease in healthy animals. As alternatives, farmers should consider vaccinate the animals, create better and more hygienic housing conditions and improve husbandry procedures such as better ventilation as well as reduction of animal confinement and stress conditions. It is, therefore, vital to educate farmers and pet-owners to collaborate with the vets to understand how to use these drugs responsibly.
Urgent actions are needed to avoid history repeating itself and to see common and minor infections killing again. Yet gain, humans actions, and not animals themselves, are to blame for the antibiotic crisis. In your opinion, what do you think can be done to revert this process?
By Ricardo Ribas, Veterinary Doctor, doctorate in veterinary sciences and researcher in the area of oncology in London
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The subjects and ideas discussed in this article are for informational purposes only. For more information consult a professional in the area. Whilst every effort is made to make sure the article is accurate at the time of publication, I take no liability for any new developments on the subject as well as any errors or omissions.