CDC official says antibiotics ineffective

Emily Mills

A top-ranking official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not think antibiotics are still effective at fighting bacterial infections.

Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director of the CDC, said in a PBS interview that this is the “post-antibiotic era.”

“These drugs are miracle drugs, these antibiotics that we have, but we haven’t taken good care of them over the 50 years that we’ve had them,” he said in the interview, according to an article on the Daily Mail’s website.

Alexander Fleming, a Scottish biologist, discovered antibiotics in 1928, according to the Federation of American Scientists’ website. He was working with Staphylococcus bacteria and discovered penicillin, an antibiotic that prevented staph from growing.

Antibiotics can destroy bacteria, prevent them from replicating or prevent them from synthesizing proteins, said Christopher Woolverton, Kent State environmental health sciences professor.

However, these bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics, he said.

When an antibiotic is used, it kills the weakest bacteria present. That leaves the most-resistant bacteria alive and allows them to reproduce, Woolverton said.

“We’re running out of ammo to kill microorganisms,” he said. “This is truly survival of the fittest.”

This means that it’s becoming harder for pharmaceutical companies to create antibiotics that can kill these so-called “superbugs.”

“Any new thing (pharmaceutical companies) produce, the bacteria are going to figure out very quickly how to defeat it,” he said.

This difficulty is making pharmaceutical companies reluctant to continue research on new options to fight bacterial infections, he said.

A pharmaceutical study can take between five and eight years and cost between $10 and $20 million, Woolverton said. In the end, the antibiotic might not be effective at killing bacteria. This chance of failure means pharmaceutical companies don’t want to waste the time or money.

“The return investment is slim to none,” Woolverton said.

Angela DeJulius, director of University Health Services at Kent State University, said bacteria can become resistant very easily.

“Every time you use an antibiotic, you create the opportunity for bacteria to develop resistance,” she said. “So the more we use them, the more likely it is to happen.”

Some of the most common resistant bacterial infections include methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which is a skin infection, and gonorrhea, which is a sexually transmitted disease.

DeJulius said gonorrhea is a problem in many developing countries, but MRSA is a problem in this area. She said she has seen several cases of MRSA at the Deweese Health Center.

She said there are only three antibiotics that have any chance of fighting MRSA.

These antibiotic-resistant infections are becoming much more common, Woolverton said. This is in part due to the fact that resistant bacteria are everywhere, including farms, water treatment plants and even hospitals.

“You’ll find them just about anywhere because of the ubiquity of antibiotics in our environments,” he said. “We have got to find a solution, and soon.”

Woolverton said there is hope. Scientists at universities around the nation are participating in the Human Microbiome Project, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

Created in 2007, the project examines all the genes of microbes that cause disease in humans and looks for any weaknesses scientists in the past might have missed.

Woolverton said finding these potential weaknesses could be the answer to finding a new way to prevent bacteria from making people sick.

Scientists are also working on discovering new biocides, which are agents that bacteria cannot develop resistance to, such as alcohol.

However, these biocides are not ingestible or injectable by humans, so scientists are working on a way to make these drugs safe for human consumption.

These projects are still in the research stages, but DeJulius and Woolverton both said people can take steps to prevent themselves from getting sick or making bacteria resistant.

DeJulius said one of the best ways people can prevent infection is becoming vaccinated against bacterial infections, such as meningitis and pertussis, or whooping cough.

“Antibiotics are helpful for infections, but it’s better to just prevent it with a vaccine,” DeJulius said.

When doctors do prescribe an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, it’s important to take the full dose. If patients only take the drug for a few days, it makes it easier for the bacteria to become resistant, Woolverton said.

One of the best ways people can prevent bacteria from becoming resistant in the first place is not getting an antibiotic every time they get sick.

DeJulius said people often want an antibiotic because they think it will make them feel better. However, antibiotics don’t work on viral infections, such as colds. This makes it easier for bacteria in their bodies to become resistant to antibiotics.

“The best solution is to get people to stop the indiscriminate use of antibiotics,” Woolverton said.

DeJulius agreed, saying people need to evaluate if an antibiotic is really the best option when it’s so easy for bacteria to become resistant to them.

“It’s really a two-sided issue,” she said. “Physicians need to think carefully about prescribing an antibiotic, but patients need to think about whether they really need one.”

Contact Emily Mills at [email protected].