In Michael Crichton's 1969 novel "The Andromeda Strain," an extraterrestrial microorganism is unwittingly brought to Earth by a space probe and manages to threaten the whole of human existence. The germ can mutate in order to avoid efforts to kill it, and scientists are at a loss — temporarily, of course — for how to stop it.
It's all really very terrifying.
Yet, while "The Andromeda Strain" is science fiction, with an emphasis on "fiction," the threat of drug-resistant "superbugs" is all too real. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a report specifying the extent to which certain bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, which over the past 80 years or so have altered the nature of health care. Since antibiotics such as penicillin — discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1927 — attained widespread use, they have been used to combat a variety of infections. Yet through overuse and misuse, antibiotics are in danger of losing their effectiveness. Among the reasons:
• Doctors often prescribe antibiotics because patients insist upon it. The CDC estimates that half of the antibiotics used by humans are unnecessary, and this allows bacteria to adapt more quickly to the drugs and become resistant to them.
• Patients often fail to take all prescribed antibiotics, stopping their treatment when they feel better. This allows some bacteria to survive, to multiply, and to develop immunity to the drug.
• Perhaps most important, the livestock industry consumes about 75 percent of the antibiotics in the United States, using them to help farm animals bulk up and to avoid diseases that can wreak havoc on a crowded feedlot.
Each of these are factors in the changing nature of fighting disease, and scientists fear that we may be moving toward a post-antibiotic world. The CDC estimates that at least 2 million Americans each year are infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, and that 23,000 die from such bacteria. Interestingly, many of those infections are contracted at hospitals, which have the most stringent antibacterial procedures, but therefore are more prone to developing strong strains of germs.
All of this should be of concern to the general public. The development and use of antibiotics have rendered the treatment of many diseases routine, and they have greatly reduced the risk of post-surgery infection. Their importance to health care suggests that the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria should be taken seriously.
The most important step to be taken involves limitations on the use of antibiotics by livestock farmers. Ranchers long have known that animals given a small amount of antibiotics will have increased weight gain, making them ready for slaughter more quickly and increasing profits. For several decades now, experts have understood that this increased the danger of drug-resistant bacteria, but the farm animal industry has fought regulation. It is time for Congress to limit this practice in the name of public health.
Secondly, doctors must be more cautious about prescribing antibiotics and more proactive about making certain that patients understand the issues involved. Antibiotics are not appropriate for treating some ailments — such as the common cold, which is caused by a virus, not bacteria — and patients must understand the importance of using all of their prescription.
The idea of microorganisms from space threatening the human population might still be limited to science fiction, yet we have plenty of reasons to be concerned with bacteria right here on Earth.