Antibiotic resistance: What is it, how is it caused and what can we do about it?

April 21, 2021

Antibiotic resistance has been around since the discovery of the first antibiotic, and it’s prevalent today. Not all resistance is antibiotic-induced, but the over, and incorrect use, of antibiotics to treat bacterial infections has resulted in a major increase in resistance. 

Antibiotic resistance makes it impossible to fight infections with certain types of antibiotics. This results in longer hospital stays, increased follow-up visits, and the use of costly and potentially harmful alternative treatments. 

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at antibiotic resistance and its causes and find out what we can do to minimise it.

What are antibiotics?

Antibiotics are a group of medications used to treat bacterial infections. There are many types of antibiotics, including penicillin, vancomycin and methicillin. 

Introduced in 1928, penicillin was the first antibiotic discovered and used widely. In 1942, it was used to treat meningitis and in the same year, penicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus was identified. Since then, two more penicillin-resistant bacteria have been identified.   

Penicillin is a commonly used antibiotic.
Penicillin is a commonly used antibiotic.

What is antibiotic resistance and how is it caused?

Antibiotic resistance occurs when infection-causing bacteria and fungi become resistant to the antibiotics used to treat them. It’s important to note that the bacteria, and not the body, become resistant to the antibiotics.  

During antibiotic resistance bacteria discover the drug’s mechanism of action and begin to resist it. Ultimately, the bacteria are able to withstand attack by the antibiotic. This means that the medicine no longer eliminates bacteria from the body and the patient remains sick. 

Over-prescription of antibiotics leads to large-scale antibiotic resistance as more strains of bacteria become resistant and are passed on to other people in the population. Soon, doctors have to use different, usually more expensive, drugs to treat patients infected by these resistant bacteria. 

Each year, 35,000 people out of the 2.8 million people in the US infected with antibiotic resistant fungi or bacteria will die from their infection. 

You will have noticed that every time doctors prescribe antibiotics, they stress the importance of taking the entire course of tablets even if you’re feeling better before the packet is finished. This is because even if you are feeling better, some bacteria or fungi remain in your body. These will continue to multiply if the antibiotic treatment is not kept up. If the antibiotics in your body are not at their full strength, these remaining bacteria may become resistant to the antibiotic. 

Not taking the full course of antibiotics prescribed by your doctor may lead to an increase of antibiotic resistance.
Not taking the full course of antibiotics prescribed by your doctor may lead to an increase of antibiotic resistance. 

What are superbugs?

Superbugs are types of bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi that are resistant to most antibiotics and other medications used to treat them. The term ‘superbug’ was coined by the media; medical professionals tend to call these bacteria ‘multidrug resistant bacteria’. They are partly caused by the over-prescription of antibiotics, as discussed above. 

Common examples of multidrug resistant bacteria include:

  • Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), aka Golden Staph
  • Vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE)
  • Penicillin-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae (PRSP)

How can the antibiotic resistance problem be prevented or minimised?

Although antibiotic resistance is part of the natural evolution of germs, the misuse of drugs has resulted in increased antibiotic resistance. A World Health Organisation (WHO) article on the subject details the ways that various individuals and groups can help minimise the spread of antibiotic resistance. Some of these solutions are summarised below.

  • Individuals
    • Don’t insist on antibiotics if your health professional says you don’t need them.
    • Always take the full course of antibiotics.
    • Never share or use someone else’s antibiotics. 
    • Don’t take antibiotics for a viral infection.
    • Only use antibiotics when prescribed by a health professional. 
    • Prevent infections by washing hands/using hand sanitiser, staying home when sick, and wearing a mask when needed. 
  • Health professionals
    • Only prescribe antibiotics when they are needed, according to current jurisdictional guidelines.
    • Inform your patients on how to use antibiotics correctly, and the risks if they are mismanaged.
    • Prevent infections by ensuring instruments, surfaces and hands are clean.
    • Talk to your patients about infection control e.g., vaccination, hand washing, mask-wearing.
    • Report any antibiotic-resistant infections.
  • Policy makers
    • Ensure a robust, scalable action plan to minimise the spread of antibiotic resistance.
    • Strengthen policies, education and programmes regarding infection control.
    • Ensure accessible materials regarding the impact of antibiotic resistance.
    • Promote and regulate the appropriate use and disposal of medication. 
    • Monitor antibiotic resistant infections closely.

There are also notes regarding the correct use of antibiotics in the agricultural industry, including not using antibiotics for growth promotion, using alternatives to antibiotics when available, and only administering antibiotics under veterinary supervision. 

How Chemwatch can help

Not all chemicals are made to cure, and we are here to ensure you handle all your chemicals safely. To avoid accidental consumption, mishandling and misidentification, chemicals should be accurately labelled, tracked and stored. For assistance with this, or if you have any questions about the safety, storage and labelling of your chemicals, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us. Call us on (03) 9573 3100. 

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