Antibiotic Resistance: The Modern Apocalypse

Antibiotic resistance is on the rise. Here's what we can do to slow it down.

Updated: Tuesday 17 November 2020

Healthcare professional using a pipette and test tube for a laboratory experiment

There are several types of infection - fungal, parasitic, viral and bacterial. The immune system is designed to fight these off by identifying the threat and eliminating it. But sometimes the body needs a little help.

The Golden Age of Antibiotics

There has been a constant struggle between bacteria and larger organisms for millennia. Occasionally, the bacteria would win a battle, causing the Black Death and tuberculosis epidemics. Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin in the late ‘20s provided humanity with a desperately needed solution. The first modern antibiotic, it has changed the face of medicine forever. Since then, many antibiotics have been modelled after its chemical structure and new classes created to target specific bacterial groups with precision.

For the first time recorded, civilization had the advantage. Unfortunately, overconfidence blinded us to the fast-approaching consequences of indulging our short-lived success. Once the temple of miracles, hospitals became dangerous as numbers of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) cases increased from 1,900 in the early 90s to 368,300 in 2005. These figures shocked the world, unable to accept that antibiotics might not be an unyielding panacea after all. Scientists were scratching their heads in puzzlement upon seeing the abrupt increase in MRSA evolution since 1993.

Antibiotics In Moderation

There are incalculable naturally-occurring and antibiotic-resistant microorganisms that the amount of drugs we employ to tackle them is negligible compared, and our efforts are ironically in favour of the microbes. Studies by Gonzales et al. (1997) indicate that doctors continue to prescribe antibiotics just to get rid of a patient with a runny nose.

Antibiotics should only be used if a person has a deep tissue infection that their immune system has no chance of fighting off on its own. Milislav Demerec, a geneticist from Carnegie Institute of Washington, proposed that antibiotics decrease the quantity of organisms so that the body can take over and effectively eliminate the remainder of the colony.

Bacterial infections can deteriorate rapidly and so should be treated as soon as possible. With doctor’s surgeries fit to burst with patients and no appointments to be had for weeks, the NHS have delegated many services, including treating common infections. Patients can now go to their local GUM clinics for anything urinary or genito-related and walk-in clinics are available across the country. Online pharmacies have taken to selling limited amounts of certain antibiotics - treatments for cystitis, gonorrhoea, traveller’s diarrhoea, and chlamydia being the top-selling.

The Dangers Of Overdoing It

The microorganisms have an innate ability to constantly adapt their nature to suit the environment. However, it can be said that the propellant of bacteria from bugs to “superbugs” has been partly our fault by using products tagged as “antibacterial” including wipes and disinfectants as well as prescribing antibiotics for minor infections and colds.

Eradicating bacteria from every available surface appears to be a safe choice and a direct route to cleanliness. But research by Mwambete and Lyombe (2011) illustrates that if you remove these common species, the remaining 0.1% of the “germs” are the most dangerous. The abundant but less deadly organisms spread out their territory, restricting the growth for resistant species forced to live on the margins. However, the liberal use of antibiotics and antibacterial products kills the harmless bacteria and makes way for the destructive species to colonise.

The Future Unknown

Today, penicillin is more or less useless in practice. It has been benched, its only purpose is being subjected to scientific study to aid the battle against antibiotic resistance.

In response to the heightened concern surrounding antibiotic resistance in the UK, the sale of antibiotics is being closely monitored. There are more restrictions in place for patient safety, campaigns for increased awareness and patients are offered alternatives. Antibiotics are only recommended as a last resort.

Medical supplies, ampoules, syringe, and assorted pills on a white table
Iris Barbier

Written by: Iris Barbier

Pharmacy Assistant

Born in France, Iris moved to the UK to study Biological Sciences at London Metropolitan University. Upon graduating, Iris moved up north, where she completed an MA in Science Journalism at the University of Lincoln.

As a qualified science journalist, Iris uses her expertise to write content for Pharmica’s online Health Centre. She ensures our patients get specialist knowledge on medical conditions and how to treat them.

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