Opinion: Over-use of antibiotics proving to be health problem

Can you imagine a society where antibiotics no longer work as the quick fix to a common infection? One of the biggest issues in the health care sector today, besides rising medical costs, is the epidemic of antibiotic-resistant infections.
Antibiotic resistance, in which bacteria develop defenses against antibiotics that are designed to kill them, is rapidly increasing. So much so that it is threatening to put our society back to a place where people are dying from ordinary infections. This is a huge problem; some people are even calling it an apocalypse. The director-general of the World Health Organization has warned that we face a “post-antibiotic era … in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it … things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”
We have come so far in medical advancements and treatments of infectious diseases. Penicillin, discovered in the 1940s, dramatically changed our medicine for the better. From 1940 to 1962, substantial advances were made in the field of medicine with more than 20 new classes of antibiotics produced. However, according to Sarah Carlson’s article “Antibiotic Armageddon: Modern Medicine on the Edge of the Abyss,” medical research has slowed to a virtual standstill. In the past 50 years, only two new antibiotics have been produced. This is problematic as more and more bacteria become resistant to our current antibiotics.
What has caused such antibiotic resistance? Overtreatment and over prescription. As new antibiotics were proven effective in treating bacterial infections they became more and more popular. In her book “Overtreated,” Shannon Brownlee discusses an economic principle, unique to medicine, known as supply-driven demand. This term essentially means that the supply of medical resources, such as antibiotics, is determining how much medical care patients get, rather than how much the patients actually need. Pharmaceutical companies are putting pressure on doctors to prescribe their drug through financial incentives and gifts.
Not only did antibiotics become popular among doctors, but it became a trend with patients as well. Today, our fast-paced society causes patients to demand antibiotics for all ailments as a quick fix. However, antibiotics only kill bacterial infections and not viral. This is a problem, because we are continually prescribing antibiotics as treatment for viral infections. By doing this, the weak bacteria are being killed off and the strong bacteria are resisting the antibiotics. The strong bacteria then multiply and create even stronger strains that are much worse.
We need to find a solution to this problem and we need to find one fast. Dr. Laura Piddok, from the University of Birmingham, estimates that we only have 10-20 years before antibiotics become completely ineffective. The first step we need to take is reforming antibiotic prescriptions. Doctors need to stop prescribing unnecessary drugs to patients. If we only take antibiotics when needed we could dramatically slow down the antimicrobial resistance process. However, less prescription is not the whole answer.
We need to develop new antibiotics that effectively fight and kill bacteria. This requires much research and development. There is a lack of incentive for research and development, because antibiotics have a low rate of return and will not cover the high costs associated with research. Thus, in order to incentivize researchers, the government needs to help finance drug development. Federal funding, such as grants or subsidies, will heighten the importance of the antibiotic resistance and help encourage clinical development of new antibiotics.
Other policy recommendations include a research and development tax credit for new antibiotics, an extension of the patent life or market exclusivity for new antibiotics, or a transferable patent extension that grants companies an extension on patent time of another drug that the company markets. If no single pharmaceutical company or researcher wants to develop a new antibiotic, the government should create an institution dedicated to strictly antimicrobial research.
The New York Times reported that “at least two million Americans fall ill from antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year and that at least 23,000 die from those infections.” Antibiotic resistance is a real threat that our generation faces. Overtreatment and overprescription of antibiotics should no longer be the norm. The government needs to incentivize the urgent discovery of new antibiotics through federal funding and subsidies. If we do not find a solution to this major health care crisis, antibiotics will soon be useless and we will be right back where we started a century ago: dying from ordinary infections.
So, next time you get sick, resist the temptation to immediately request an antibiotic and try another form of healing.
Lexi DeMarco
Middlebury College

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