Antibiotics are almost consumed like sweets in Bahrain, but in the past few weeks, disturbing news has emerged from China that one of our last-resort antibiotics, colistin, can now be resisted by bacteria.
Colistin is a toxic antibiotic that was abandoned in the Seventies due to its side-effects, but regained its popularity recently because it was the only chance for many seriously ill patients. But we’ve been aware for a while that bacteria resistant to it were emerging. Worse, it is feared this resistance can spread easily between different types of bacteria. The world needs to wake up and take note.
From the day of the discovery of penicillin, it has been a continual competition between scientists and bacteria. It’s a battle science alone can’t win: As soon as you use antibiotics, bacteria start to find a way to resist them. During this battle, many supposed last-resort antibiotics have become useless for treating serious infections.
The most frequent reason seems to be that we use too many antibiotics and use them very carelessly. A simple example was recently published showing that 70 per cent of people visiting a family doctor in the US for an acute respiratory infection such as simple flu are prescribed an antibiotic. It is unnecessary. These infections are mostly caused by viruses.
The public are as responsible as we physicians: 50pc of patients expect an antibiotic for simple respiratory symptoms and put pressure on their doctors to prescribe it.
Antibiotic consumption is far higher in agriculture than in human patients, and untreated industrial waste containing high concentrations of antimicrobials can pollute the environment and create highly resistant bacteria.
We now have no new antibiotics and will have none in the near future. We need a multi-institutional and multi-factor strategy immediately by all global parties, including governments, politicians, scientists, professional societies and the pharmaceutical industry. We’ve been beating the drum for many years and hope the world finally has its ears open.