Although humans have technically been using things like urine, mold, snakeskins and honey to fight infections since as far back as 3500 BCE, the first antibiotic wasn’t developed until 1928 when Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the effects Penicillin had on bacteria after stumbling into his dirty lab upon returning from vacation.
While the discovery was actually the result of an epidemiologist’s ironic inability to properly disinfect his work station, Penicillin did go on to make life better for everyone.
Although Penicillin was hailed as a holy grail of medicine and even earned Dr. Fleming a Nobel Prize, it didn’t take long for the bacteria it killed to fight back. By 1947, the first reported case of bacterial resistance to penicillin had been discovered and the era of drug resistant bacteria had begun.
Since then, researchers have been in a continuous struggle to stay ahead of dangerous MDROs (bacteria that develop resistance to multiple drugs) as the number of superbugs has skyrocketed over the last two decades.
According to some sources, up to 70% of bacteria that cause infection are resistant to at least one of the drugs most commonly used for treatment and some organisms like CRE and Gonorrhea are resistant to almost all approved antibiotics. Other bacteria like Tuberculous have become so resistant to drugs that the World Health Organization expects multiple drug resistant forms to infect 2 million people a year by 2015.
Unfortunately, as bacteria have sped up, we’ve slowed down and with no new class of antibiotics hitting the shelf over the last thirty years, many health organizations and researchers are worried about a world similar to the pre-antibiotic one Dr. Fleming was born into.
According to Dr. Neil Woodford from the Health Protection Agency’s antimicrobial resistance unit, “It would be like the 1920’s and 30’s. You could be gardening and prick your finger on a rose bush, get a bacterial infection and go into hospital and doctors can’t do anything to save your life. You live or die based on chance.”
While bacteria will always naturally evolve and adapt to antibiotics overtime, we have no one to blame but ourselves for their current adaptive speed.
Every time we ask for antibiotics for something viral and every time we don’t finish the dosage our doctor proscribed, we are destroying weak bacteria and leaving behind the stronger ones. These bigger, badder bacteria then march their little resistant selves to the replication lab and produce a whole new generation of stronger bacteria babies (Is it okay to call a new bacterium a baby?).
It’s like one big episode of Survivor in your body and spoiler alert: You are going to be voted off the island.
While the whole situation might look bleak, by incorporating better antibiotic practices like asking the doctor whether the medicine is necessary, and using devices like Xenex, we might just have a fighting chance for the future.
Xenex is a company on a mission to eradicate the harmful bacteria and viruses that cause the healthcare associated infections which take countless lives around the world every day. While we produce a robot that is used to disinfect hospital rooms, we also think it is critical to inform, support, and arm the general public with the tools and knowledge necessary to help them navigate the tough and often complicated worlds of infection control and health.
John Burnam is a freelance copywriter fortunate enough to be learning a lot about the scary world of superbugs from the smart folks at Xenex Disinfection Services. In his spare time, you can catch him traveling, drinking coffee and hanging out with his wife and friends.
For information on when it isn’t a good idea to take antibiotics, visit the CDC.
For the difference between treating non-resistant and drug resistant forms of TB, check out this great infographic from NPR.
For a better understanding of the history of medicine, check out this very accurate timeline from the World Health Organization:
2000 BCE – Here, eat this root.
1000 CE – That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
1850 CE – That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
1920 CE – That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
1945 CE – That pill is ineffective. Here, take this penicillin.
1955 CE – Oops….bugs mutated. Here, take this tetracycline.
1960-1999 CE – 39 more “oops”…Here, take this more powerful antibiotic.
2000 CE – The bugs have won! Here, eat this root.