Last week the United Nations General Assembly held a high-level meeting where 193 countries pledged to fight the threat of “superbugs,” antibiotic-resistant infections that stemmed from antibiotic resistance. It is only the fourth time in the U.N.’s 70-year history that a meeting like this has been held, with the threat reaching its tipping point.
The era of modern medicine began in 1928 with the discovery of penicillin, which became known as the “medical miracle” and soon became available to the public. As more and more antibiotics were developed to tackle different infections, this created the pathway for resistance. Instead of holding doctors responsible for over-prescribing these drugs, the cycle continued and new antibiotics were created as others became less effective.
At the time however, this concern was pushed to the side.
“The difference is that the pharmaceutical companies always came through,” said Barbara Murray, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “[It was] like, ‘Oh okay, we don’t have to worry about this anymore,’ and so nothing really was done to address the underlying causes of overuse and then the spread.”
Fast forward to the present. Every year in the United States, at least 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and thousands die as a result.
The issue of overusing antibiotics is still very common today. Nobel Prize-winning chemist Venki Ramakrishnan has talked about misuse of these miracle drugs and how patients will get minor ailments that can be treated with other medication but are persistent in asking for their doctor for antibiotics. But regardless, doctors are still in control, and the responsibility should fall on them.
“I would argue that doctors who are over-prescribing these medications are perhaps even more responsible than the individuals asking for them, especially as we have increasing evidence of antibiotic resistance available,” UT sociology professor Stephanie Osbakken said.
A study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston showed that while only 10 percent of adults with a sore throat have strep and need antibiotics, 60 percent are given a prescription.
“In the hospital setting, antibiotics get overused in part because we don’t know usually for 48 to 72 hours what the infection is due to and what it’s susceptible to,” Murray said. “So if a patient’s really sick, you just blast them with everything because you’re afraid, you don’t want to miss anything.”
She further explained that more rapid and immediate diagnosis is needed to address this issue, but until there is a way to do so, doctors must address the way in which they deal with patients. Antibiotic resistance has been allowed to progress partly because they have not been held responsible for their actions. To combat this, the handling of antibiotics must be tracked to ensure that prescriptions match the needs of the patient and that doctors are not overcompensating or taking unnecessary preventative measures.
Agha is a public relations junior from Karachi, Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @alinaagha96.