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Are We Entering a Post-Antibiotic Era? And What Does That Even Mean?

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In November, much of the discussion during World Antibiotic Awareness Week revolved around the growing fear that antibiotics will soon no longer be an effective treatment for diseases.

The initiative, run by the World Health Organisation (WHO), established with the aim of increasing awareness of global antibiotic resistance. The WHO declared this issue to be a global threat as early as 2014, but with the recent discovery of bacteria capable of resisting all forms of antibiotic, the question is now less about “How do we avoid resistance to antibiotics?” and more a case of “What do we do when antibiotics become ineffective?”

What is antibiotic resistance and how does it come about?

For those not familiar with the concept of antibiotic resistance, it is important to state that this is a natural phenomenon that occurs as bacteria evolve over time. As bacteria grow and multiply, they adapt and change their ability to combat the antibiotics that humans have come to rely on.

What the WHO and other health organisations have been at pains to point out, however, is the fact that misuse and over-prescription of antibiotics has only served to hasten the process.

Antibiotics are used to cure illnesses and kill harmful bacteria. But different strains of bacteria have varying abilities to fight back against a specific antibiotic. Over time, the interaction of different bacterium shares around resistant properties. The transfer and exchanging of genetic material between bacterium means that resistance genes can spread quickly.

Another way of the bacteria becoming resistant is through genetic mutation. Genetic mutation is a rare, spontaneous change in the genetic material, which can in some cases lead to an improvement in a bacterium’s strength of resistance.

As subsequent generations inherit the resistance gene, the effectiveness of antibiotics decreases at a drastic rate. The result of this is what we term a post-antibiotic era.

Post-Antibiotic Era

The World Health Organisation have confirmed that the world is now on the brink of a Post Antibiotic Era. As the number of ‘superbugs’ increases exponentially, the ability of doctors to prescribe effective treatment will reduce drastically.

In China, bacteria have already been found to overcome the strongest antibiotics, and the worry now is that this problem could manifest itself into a global crisis very quickly. By their very nature, superbugs spread between individuals and even species at great speed.

So, should we be frightened?

While there is certainly cause for concern at the prospect of a return to a world where our most effective antibiotic treatments are no longer of use, medical experts have advised that it is possible to slow down the advance of this post-antibiotic era.

First and foremost it is important that people are informed and educated around issues such as the misuse of antibiotics, the continuing purification of water, development of new drugs and, most importantly, encouraging people to finish a course of antibiotics when prescribed.

If these objectives can be enforced then it may be possible for the world to delay the worst effects of a post-antibiotic era until such time as scientists can find an alternative solution.