Even as a casual observer of the news over the past few years, it would be difficult to avoid terms such as “superbug”, or its more scientific counterpart, “antibiotic-resistant bacteria”. A quick Google News search on the “antibiotic apocalypse” will present pages upon pages of results. As inherently alarming as the word is, it begs the question: just how serious is this issue, and at what point should you be worried?
As you may know, doctors generally prescribe antibiotics to individuals with infections caused by bacteria, fungi, and certain parasites. However, with rampant antibiotic misuse (such as not taking antibiotics for the entire time period prescribed by the doctor, or using antibiotics when they are not necessary), bacteria have the opportunity to evolve and become resistant to antibiotics. This antibiotic resistance is not limited to the bacteria residing in your body—it is now a global concern.
On September 22, 2016, the UN officially classified antibiotic resistance as a crisis—that is, on the same level as HIV and Ebola. All 193 member states came to the consensus that action must be taken.
“The crisis has been stimulated by our overuse and misuse of antibiotics as unnecessary prophylactics in medicine, household products, and agriculture,” says Steven Short, a UTM biology professor with a focus on microbial ecology and virology. “This has created microbial environments with strong selective pressure for antibiotic resistance. In essence, we have favoured resistant bacteria and helped them outcompete their sensitive relatives.”
Antibiotic resistance is nothing new, as bacteria have developed resistance to enemy compounds as a form of self-defense throughout their history.
A troubling result came from a 2015 multi-country survey, conducted by the World Health Organization, which demonstrated that 64% of participants understood that antibiotic resistance is a key issue that could affect them and their families, but do not understand how the issue affects them and what can be done to address the problem.
UTM’s Fiona Rawle, a biology professor, has previously led various research projects which sought to out to assess and remedy the misconceptions about antibiotic resistance amongst students.
Fatima Atyani, a third-year biology for health sciences major and chemistry minor, was one of the students involved in this research project.
“The thing that makes antibiotic resistance so scary nowadays is that not many undergraduate students are aware of its existence and of its dangers,” Atyani says. “If the antibiotic resistance problem is going to be at its largest in a couple of years, these students are the ones that should be the most educated on the topic, [especially] if we want to tackle [it] and hopefully prevent this issue from ever getting out of hand.”
College students have been identified in previously established research literature as a surprising demographic to harbor these kinds of misconceptions, given their high level of education.
Landi Zhou, a third-year biology and chemistry double major, aimed to categorize all known antibiotic resistance misconceptions in the literature through his ROP with Dr. Rawle.
“[Antibiotic resistance misconceptions] was a lot more prevalent in countries in Asia. This had a lot to do with the various superstitions or cultural practices that are deeply embedded there. Globally, the groups of people who have more difficulty [with the concept of antibiotic resistance] are groups such as the impoverished and less educated,” says Zhou.
Given this information, many would wonder—are we doomed to a future without any antibiotics?
I reached out to a few UTM biology professors with the same question: “What are some solutions you can think of for counteracting the possibility of a post-antibiotic era?”
Professor George Espie, a UTM microbiology professor, commented, “We haven’t invested much in the discovery of new antibiotics. It was, at one time, admirable to explore the field of antibiotic resistance. It has now become a business venture. The focus is changing from one that used to be a human enterprise into a business enterprise”.
“It seems like throwing our money at something once it becomes too late in the game is often our solution, and this is a recurring issue.”
Short offers a similar viewpoint, stating, “A more judicious use of antibiotics will help mitigate the crisis, and ongoing research on new antibiotic compounds will certainly provide new countermeasures to treat resistant infections.”
“The biggest thing that we can change is the over-prescription of antibiotic drugs. Relying on a very small number of antibiotics, and applying them at any sign of a cold that the immune system may be able to fight off, is probably a contributor to resistance,” comments bioinformatics professor Rob Ness.
Despite many signs pointing to a bleak future, awareness of the issue is key to implementing solutions in order to tackle these superbugs.