Thursday, August 12, 2010

Are antibiotics becoming ineffective?

A very thought-provoking article in the Guardian suggests they may be. Here's a short extract.

The era of antibiotics is coming to a close. In just a couple of generations, what once appeared to be miracle medicines have been beaten into ineffectiveness by the bacteria they were designed to knock out. Once, scientists hailed the end of infectious diseases. Now, the post-antibiotic apocalypse is within sight.

Hyperbole? Unfortunately not. The highly serious journal Lancet Infectious Diseases yesterday posed the question itself over a paper revealing the rapid spread of multi-drug-resistant bacteria. "Is this the end of antibiotics?" it asked.

Doctors and scientists have not been complacent, but the paper by Professor Tim Walsh and colleagues takes the anxiety to a new level. Last September, Walsh published details of a gene he had discovered, called NDM 1, which passes easily between types of bacteria called enterobacteriaceae such as E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae and makes them resistant to almost all of the powerful, last-line group of antibiotics called carbapenems. Yesterday's paper revealed that NDM 1 is widespread in India and has arrived here as a result of global travel and medical tourism for, among other things, transplants, pregnancy care and cosmetic surgery.

"In many ways, this is it," Walsh tells me. "This is potentially the end. There are no antibiotics in the pipeline that have activity against NDM 1-producing enterobacteriaceae. We have a bleak window of maybe 10 years, where we are going to have to use the antibiotics we have very wisely, but also grapple with the reality that we have nothing to treat these infections with."

And this is the optimistic view – based on the assumption that drug companies can and will get moving on discovering new antibiotics to throw at the bacterial enemy. Since the 1990s, when pharma found itself twisting and turning down blind alleys, it has not shown a great deal of enthusiasm for difficult antibiotic research. And besides, because, unlike with heart medicines, people take the drugs for a week rather than life, and because resistance means the drugs become useless after a while, there is just not much money in it.

. . .

After antibiotics: what happens when the drugs don't work

• Transplant surgery becomes virtually impossible. Organ recipients have to take immune-suppressing drugs for life to stop rejection of a new heart or kidney. Their immune systems cannot fight off life-threatening infections without antibiotics.

• Removing a burst appendix becomes a dangerous operation once again. Patients are routinely given antibiotics after surgery to prevent the wound becoming infected by bacteria. If bacteria get into the bloodstream, they can cause life-threatening septicaemia.

• Pneumonia becomes once more "the old man's friend". Antibiotics have stopped it being the mass-killer it once was, particularly among the old and frail, who would lapse into unconsciousness and often slip away in their sleep. Other diseases of old age, such as cancer, have taken over.

• Gonorrhea becomes hard to treat. Resistant strains are already on the rise. Without treatment, the sexually transmitted disease causes pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and ectopic pregnancies.

• Tuberculosis becomes incurable – first we had TB, then multi-drug-resistant TB (MDR-TB) and now there is XDR-TB (extremely drug resistant TB). TB requires very long courses (six months or more) of antibiotics. The very human tendency to stop taking or forget to take the drugs has contributed to the spread of resistance.

There's more at the link.

I've seen the beginnings of this problem in the Third World. Many medical facilities there are bush clinics, without the staff or facilities to keep an eye on their patients and ensure that they complete their course of medication. As a result, many patients (particularly those with tuberculosis or other infectious diseases) take only part of their course, feel better, and stop taking the pills. Inevitably, of course, the disease returns: but it's now had an opportunity to develop a resistance to the drugs, and is that much harder to treat. Furthermore, insects bite the victims, pick up the now drug-resistant infection, and transmit it to others. It's a vicious circle.

I hope the article is unduly alarmist, and that things aren't that bad . . . but I fear I'm being over-optimistic.



Dave said...

This is not ready for prime-time quite yet but check out what Kery Mullis is working on:

The guy already won the Nobel for his work on PCR (DNA testing).

As a foot note - some people are suggesting that this is being spread by people doing 'medical tourism' - ie: having joint or other major surgery done in clinics in other nations.

We each have our own set of internal flora and carrying these (and exposing these and being exposed to the new flora) are probably helping to contribute to the problem.

Ambulance Driver said...

It's not alarmist at all, it's an unpleasant fact.

Due to over-prescription of antibiotics by doctors too afraid to tell their patients that the only thing that will heal their viral syndrome is time, and the poor dosing compliance you mentioned, antibiotics are increasingly ineffective, and new drug-resistant strains of bacteria are discovered every day.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention the problem with
"open borders", which allows anyone carrying anything into the country. This country currently has diseases and parasites that most doctors here don't even recognize.

SiGraybeard said...

Thanks to Dave for that link.

Probably the most interesting thing I've read on that general subject in a good 10 years.

Anonymous said...

Part of the problem is also that in many parts of the world, antibiotics are sold OTC to "cure" every little sniffle that people are bothered about, which also helps to create resistant bacteria which then spreads over the world.

Sadly, I believe that the only option is for doctors in the West to grow a pair and tell their patients to suck it up and just wait for their sniffles to end, and also possibly deny the drugs to large parts of the world where they will not be used responsibly.