Since the 1940s, antibiotics fundamentally transformed medicine and helped countless people beat various diseases. Now, the extreme overuse of the drugs threatens to destroy the effectiveness of the cures. There’s a dire need to create new drugs to defeat the antibiotic-resistant pathogens or we may plunge into unchartered medical territory, left to fight a multitude of diseases with ineffective cures. This dire situation is no longer a “what if.” It’s happening now — globally, and we’re on the cusp of a post-antibiotic age.
The Resistance of Antibiotics
For the first time in history, The World Health Organization surveyed the growth of antibiotic-resistant germs around the world. The findings were far from reassuring. The results confirmed that antimicrobial resistance in bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses is a problem on the rise in literally every part of the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic-resistant infections cause an additional 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses in the United States annually.
No matter how developed the healthcare system is, everyone’s at risk. The failure of a last-resort treatment for gonorrhea was confirmed in a number of countries around the world, including those with advanced healthcare systems like Britain, France, Australia, Sweden, and Canada. This spread of antibiotic-resistant pathogens creates a striking issue for standard treatments. The risk of developing an uncontrollable infection has exponentially increased along with the high risk of spreading or acquiring said infections.
Researchers have discovered antibiotic-resistance in a number of diseases; some of the most pressing include gonorrhea, malaria, HIV, influenza, and UTIs caused by E. coli. However, the rate at which humans are becoming resistant to antibiotics means that common infections and minor injuries, which have long been treatable, will regain the power to lead to death.
The development of resistant strains is perpetuated by the overuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture. VICE News released an informative short documentary on the topic, Bio-Prospecting with Malaria Curing Sloths in Panama. The film informs that certain species around the world, such as the featured ant species, can use one single antibiotic for 10-12 million years. Humans, however, develop a resistance to antibiotic drugs as rapidly as 2 years. With such fast turnover rates, the creation of sustainable cures is essential.
Hope For The Future
Although the solution to the problem with antibiotic resistance isn’t by any means an easy one, researchers and microbiologists are meticulously working toward it. Bryson Voiron, a neuroscientist featured in VICE’s documentary, currently studies sloths and the possibility that the cure for a number of diseases lives in sloth fur. The average sloth’s fur is matted with algae, fungus, moss, and bacteria, as Voiron describes it, their fur is “much like little ecosystems.”
Around 50 types of fungi live in one small sample of sloth hair alone. Sloth hair is specially adapted for algae, and since sloths don’t have the energy to groom themselves, it spreads. Researchers then test the extracts from the fur against different strains of bacteria to determine if they can be medically relevant. Voiron speculates that these fungi have the ability to fight diseases such as malaria or cancer. Essentially, sloth fur contains a “small pharmacy.”
Another abstract way to search for new cures lies in the canopy of the Panama rainforest. The canopy of the rainforest, 50 to 200 feet above ground, houses the majority of the rainforest inhabitants. Canopy exploration is a relatively recent science, however, because of how unaccessible it is.
Microbiologist Carmenza Spadafora explains that we need to preserve the forests because deforestation inhibits the evolution of biodiversity. By losing the biodiversity, we’re losing potential future medicines. The fact that every single tree in the rainforest serves as its own microcosm indicates that every tree contains potential worth. By destroying one certain tree, we may not ever discover another tree that has the exact same microbiology. The cure for cancer could’ve existed among an organism that was chopped down to dirt and concrete via deforestation. Spadafora expresses that everyone should be concerned about what’s happening in Panama because it’s one of the most influential hotspots for biodiversity in the world.
Current Action Against the Antibiotic Crisis
Since the problem with antibiotics is increasing at a rapid rate, there’s an immediate call for action. The White House Blog ensures that the issue is not being put on the back burner. The Obama administration created a set of new federal actions to protect public health and combat the pressing issue with antibiotics.
First, the Executive Order implemented by the government establishes a new interagency, Task Force and Federal Advisory Council, to increase the amount of research aimed to develop new methods to defeat antibiotic resistance. The Executive Order also requires better monitoring of resistant infections as well as more regulation regarding antibiotic use. The new interagency is set to develop a five-year National Action Plan for implementing the National Strategy for Combating Antibiotics-Resistant Bacteria, a strategy which includes goals and assessment metrics for controlling antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority launched a $20 million prize to promote the development of a rapid diagnostic test to identify highly resistant bacterial infections.
While there are proactive actions toward the solution of the problem with antibiotics, there are certain precautions to be taken in the meantime. Antibiotics should only be used when prescribed by a certified health professional, and even if the symptoms of the illness go away, the full treatment course should be completed. If antibiotics are treated carelessly, more concerning problems can arise.
As antibiotic-resistance continues to grow, it is certainly an issue that demands more attention. Many people don’t realize how serious the problem is and take the easy accessibility to antibiotics for granted. It’s important to stay informed about the problem, and for now, hope that the solution to the antibiotic crisis lies in the fur of a lazy sloth.