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What if we run out of antibiotics?

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Antibiotics were miracle drugs in the 1930s 40s and 50s. After Scottish researcher Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin in 1928, he was quoted as saying, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.” Previously life-threatening diseases became treatable and many new drugs were developed between 1950 and 1970, making this the “golden era” of antibiotics.

Unfortunately, Alexander Fleming’s warning that “overuse may cause mutant bacteria” also started to come true around this time, and, as antibiotics were used more and more both in humans and in animals, even antibiotics developed to treat resistant strains became ineffective. Coupled with the fact that drug companies may not be as focused on developing short-term medicines than those needed for life, new drug development slowed substantially, coming almost to a halt in 2010.

So, what does this mean for us? Will stories about antibiotic resistance become more typical, like one from a HealthInsight staff member who has shared about a very scary time a few years ago when she had an infection that was resistant to all oral antibiotics? This infection required two rounds of intravenous antibiotics and spurred the fear that they may not work. Are stories like the woman in Reno, Nevada, who died in early 2017 of a resistant infection that no U.S. antibiotic could treat going to be more commonplace? I truly hope not. I sincerely believe that the global effort around preserving antibiotics and reducing resistance will succeed. A national action plan was initiated in 2015 in response to an executive order from President Obama. This action plan includes goals to accelerate the development of new drugs and diagnostic tests as well as to increase surveillance of infections and work together with International partners to slow resistance.

Antibiotic Awareness Week is November 13-19. All over the world campaigns and activities are underway to spread information and advice to prescribers and patients alike about how to use antibiotics wisely. You should be able to find posters in medical practices and clinics and articles in media. HealthInsight is involved in this work in varied ways and you too can help in the effort:

Ask your doctor these five questions before accepting a prescription for antibiotics (from the Choosing Wisely campaign):

  1. Do I really need antibiotics?
  2. What are the risks?
  3. Are there simpler, safer solutions?
  4. How much do they cost?
  5. How do I take them safely?

Find out more about preserving antibiotics at: cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/week.

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