Health scares are common and are many times overblown. However, the evolution of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics (dubbed Super Bugs) is a very real and growing danger. Yahoo Health is reporting that two especially dangerous bacteria – MRSA and CRKP – are becoming resistant to all but the most advanced antibiotics, which is posing a major health threat.
Klebsiella is a common type of gram-negative bacteria that are found in our intestines (where the bugs don’t cause disease). MRSA (methacillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) is a type of bacteria that live on the skin and can burrow deep into the body if someone has cuts or wounds, including those from surgery.
The reason for this new resistance is likely over-use (which includes mis-use) of antibiotics by health care providers (with likely some contribution from use of antibiotics in animals). For a few years now, there has been a growing recognition that doctors are over-prescribing antibiotics, i.e., routinely prescribing antibiotics when they are not necessary. For example, in 2005, U.S. News reported a Harvard study that revealed that doctors routinely prescribed antibiotics for sore throats in children when they were not indicated. A 2007 study indicated that Dutch doctors (whom are generally considered more careful in their use of antibiotics) routinely prescribed antibiotics for respiratory tract infections when they were not indicated.
The Problem with “Overuse”
The danger this poses is that antibiotics – even effective ones – typically leave some bacteria alive. These tend to be the stronger or more resistant bacteria, which then leads to the development of more and more resistance. This occurs in a single individual body in which a patient may have less response to an antibiotic after earlier use of that same antibiotic, but because of the easy spread of bacteria in our world, it also occurs on a global scale. For certain strains of bacteria, doctors are becoming hard-pressed to treat these infections.
CRKP – worse than MRSA?
Thankfully, MRSA is still responsive to several antibiotics so it is still considered a treatable infection. CRKP, however, is of more concern because it is only responsive to Colistin, which can be toxic to the kidneys. Therefore, doctors have no good options when treating CRKP. While so far, the risk of healthy people dying from MRSA and CRKP remains very low, the most vulnerable of us (the elderly and the chronically ill) remain at risk because of their lowered immune system and because the elderly are in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities where infections tend to spread more easily than in the general community.
CRKP has now been reported in 36 US states—and health officials suspect that it may also be triggering infections in the other 14 states where reporting isn’t required. High rates have been found in long-term care facilities in Los Angeles County, where the superbug was previously believed to be rare, according to a study presented earlier this month.
It is essential that we rein in the casual use of antibiotics before we are left with infections that have no cure. Doctors must be better trained to know when antibiotics are necessary and when they are not. For example, antibiotics are useless against viruses (such as the common cold), but how many of you have been given an antibiotic by a doctor “just in case” or because your symptoms have gone on slightly longer than a typical cold would last? It is unfortunately a more common occurrence than we realize. The past success of antibiotics has naturally led doctors to want to give them to patients to relieve suffering. No one wants to turn down a patient who is seeking relief. However, it makes no sense to give antibiotics to a patient who has no bacterial infection or whose illness will clear up on its own.
Patient Awareness is key
The problem, however, is more than just educating doctors. Patients share some blame too. We – the public – need to learn that antibiotics are not always needed, which can be a difficult lesson to learn when we’re sick. Everyone knows that antibiotics are a quick and effective remedy against common bacterial infections. Antibiotics have saved countless lives over the years and have relieved untold human suffering. So naturally, when we are sick (or our child is sick) and we go to the doctor, we want to see results. We want something that will alleviate the pain and symptoms, not simply be told to wait for the illness to run its course. Sometimes, however, that is the best course when you consider the side-effects of antibiotics and the dangers of over-use. That being said, who wants to hear that when you’re in pain and want relief? It is very easy to demand of doctors that they use all available means to treat a sick child. Doctors need to be able to stand-up to patients and educate them on why antibiotics are not necessarily the best course of treatment in a specific situation.
Don’t kill the good ones!
Doctors also have to teach patients that antibiotics are not targeted killers. The body contains a lot of good bacteria that are vital to our body’s functioning. Antibiotics kill those bacteria as well, which some researchers believe can adversely affect health by allowing harmful bacteria to proliferate. (If you have seen “probiotocs” advertised on certain food products – like yogurt – that is an attempt to introduce good bacteria back into your body.).
Some basic steps to take
In order to protect yourself (or a loved one), good hygiene remains the most effective method of remaining infection-free. Thankfully, neither MRSA or CRKP are transmitted through the air. They are typically transmitted through person-to-person contact, or else through hospital equipment such as IV lines, catheters, or ventilators. If you have a loved one in a hospital or nursing home, be vigilant with your hand-washing and those of the healthcare providers caring for your loved one.
Also, if you are a patient who has been prescribed antibiotics, follow your pharmacist’s orders scrupulously and take the medication in the proper dosage and for the proper amount of time. Stopping antibiotics too soon can leave bacteria alive, which contributes to the evolution of more resistant bacteria. You may feel better and want to stop the medication, but it is important to take the full dose.
So – now that you know the risks of over-using antibiotics, are you willing to forego antibiotics when you are sick in order to do your part for the greater good?
UPDATE: (Editor – Brian Nash) Within an hour of posting Mike Sander’s blog on MRSA (and CRKP), I came across a tweet about Manuka Honey is being used for dressings to fight the spread of Super Bugs – particularly MRSA.
Researchers now believe that it can also put a stop to the rates at which superbugs are becoming resistant to antibiotics.
Anyone know of this practice being used in your area hospital or clinics? Does anyone know if this really works? If so, most interesting and useful. Here to spread the word – how about you spreading it too?