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Addressing antimicrobial resistance and its impact on human vulnerability

Article-Addressing antimicrobial resistance and its impact on human vulnerability

CanvaPro Infection prevention week
A look at how antibiotics became the silver bullets against bacterial infections, as we mark Infection Prevention Week.

In the annals of medical history, few discoveries have had as profound an impact on human health and longevity as antibiotics. These miracle drugs have saved countless lives, from infections as small as a graze or cut. However, the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in recent decades have led to the rise of a formidable adversary: antimicrobial resistance (AMR). This silent threat now poses a significant danger to humanity, reminiscent of a time when infections ran rampant, claiming lives and instilling fear in communities.

The era before antibiotics

Before the discovery of antibiotics, humanity lived on the edge of a precipice. Infections that are now easily treatable were often fatal. Minor wounds could lead to sepsis, childbirth was perilous due to the risk of postpartum infections, and diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia were rampant killers. People succumbed to bacterial infections with alarming regularity, and there was little that medical practitioners could do to halt the onslaught of these unseen killers.

The advent of antibiotics: a turning point

The discovery of antibiotics in the early 20th century ushered in a new era of medicine. Alexander Fleming's accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928 marked the beginning of an unprecedented era of bacterial control.

Antibiotics became the silver bullets against bacterial infections, saving lives on a scale previously unimaginable. Suddenly, infections that were once a death sentence became treatable, and surgical procedures became much safer. The discovery of various classes of antibiotics expanded the arsenal against bacterial diseases, giving rise to a sense of invincibility against the microbial world.

Related: AMR and the effective management of infections

The rise of antimicrobial resistance: a modern crisis

However, this golden age of antibiotics was short-lived. The overreliance on these drugs, both in healthcare and agriculture, led to the emergence of antimicrobial resistance which also applies to anti-fungal and anti-virus medications. Bugs in a bid for survival, evolved mechanisms to resist medications meant to kill them.

Over time, these resistant strains became more prevalent, rendering once-effective treatments useless. Today, common infections are becoming increasingly difficult to treat due to the lack of effective antibiotics. This crisis jeopardises not only our ability to combat infections but also modern medical practices such as surgeries, chemotherapy, and organ transplants, which rely heavily on the prevention and treatment of bacterial infections.


[Fact box]

  1. It has been estimated that antibiotics have increased average life expectancy in the developed world by as much as 20 years.
  2. Before antibiotics, 90 per cent of children with bacterial meningitis died. Among those children who lived, most had severe and lasting disabilities, from deafness to mental health issues.
  3. Every year, thousands of children die of infectious diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
  4. Before antibiotics infant mortality – deaths of children before their first birthday – was around one in 20. It is now 3.5 deaths per 1,000 live births, an astonishing improvement partly down to the discovery of antibiotics.

The global implications of antimicrobial resistance

Antimicrobial resistance is not confined by borders. Resistant bacteria travel with ease, crossing continents and oceans. The lack of effective treatments for bacterial infections has severe economic, social, and healthcare consequences. Economies can falter under the strain of increased healthcare costs and lost productivity. Societies can be disrupted as common infections become untreatable, leading to increased mortality rates and undermining public health efforts. The world is now facing a scenario where even minor injuries or common infections could once again become life-threatening events.

What is on the horizon to prevent infection?

  1. New antibiotics: However, as they become widely used the bugs develop resistance.
  2. Photodisinfection: A new treatment originally developed at UCL in London kills all types of pathogens – bacteria, fungi and viruses — developing resistance. Photodisinfection uses a liquid photosensitiser and a specific wavelength of light to trigger photochemical reactions that produce reactive oxygen species which are lethal to bacteria, fungi, and viruses and do not induce antimicrobial resistance formation.
  3. Probiotics: These are beneficial bacteria that can help maintain the balance of the gut microbiota, enhancing the body's natural defense against harmful bacteria.
  4. Antiseptics: These are substances that can be applied to living tissues to destroy or prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms. Examples include hydrogen peroxide and iodine-based solutions.
  5. Phage therapy: Bacteriophages are viruses that infect and kill bacteria. Phage therapy involves using specific phages to target and destroy bacterial infections.
  6. Immune system support: Strengthening the immune system through a healthy diet, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep can help the body fight off infections naturally.
  7. Silver nanoparticles: Silver has antimicrobial properties, and silver nanoparticles have been studied for their potential use in combating bacterial infections.

Related: Tech advancements fuel training in infection control

The imperative for action

As we stand at the precipice of a post-antibiotic era, it is imperative for humanity to recognise the gravity of the situation and take decisive action. Antibiotic stewardship, research into new antimicrobial agents, and global cooperation are essential to combat this crisis. The lessons from the time before antibiotics remind us of the vulnerability of the human race in the face of microbial threats.

The fight against antimicrobial resistance is not just a medical challenge; it is a battle for the future of humanity—a battle that must be won through collaboration, innovation, and unwavering determination. Only by acting swiftly and decisively can we hope to preserve the miraculous benefits that antibiotics have bestowed upon us and protect the health and well-being of generations to come.

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