This week marks the World Health Organisation’s ‘World Antibiotic Awareness week’, running from the 14th to the 20th of November. But why choose to have a week dedicated to these medications and why have antibiotics become such a headline grabber in recent years? The short answer is something most of us are aware of: antibiotic resistance, a phrase that sounds scary, and without beating around the bush, it is.
Since the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, by Alexander Fleming in 1928, over 100 different anti-bacterial medications are now being used to treat infections globally. From tuberculosis to gonorrhoea, we often take for granted that if we become unwell, antibiotics will always be there to treat the infection. Even Fleming himself all those years ago warned that over-usage or not taking a full course of antibiotics would cause resistance. After all, bacteria evolve just as every other living organism does, but at a much faster rate due to rapid reproduction. Over-usage of antibiotics is creating an environment where only bacteria that can resist the drugs survive, and we’d really rather they didn’t.
The consequences of the loss of usable antibiotics could be catastrophic not only in terms of treating disease. Patients may take longer to recover from an illness, if at all, face more complications, have an increased chance of infection post-surgery and longer stays in hospital, which in areas of the world without free healthcare can lead to huge medical bills. Pets, farm animals, captive animals or any other animals requiring medical treatment will be affected too and the food industry could suffer, due to there often being an over-reliance on antibiotics to keep livestock healthy.
But don’t panic quite yet. A huge global effort is already underway to find alternative medications to antibiotics, and recently a group of scientists in Germany found that nasal mucus may be the answer, or in other words, snot. I know it sounds disgusting but hear me out. Zipperer and his team (2016) at the University of Tübingen found that bacteria in the human nose produce a compound called lugdunin. The compound itself has antibacterial properties and is able to fight off colonisation by another common human bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus. What’s even more exciting is that Lugdunin can work against other pathogens too, can be used in animals and hasn’t yet been found to promote resistance in S.aureus. Yay! We’re a little way off using this compound as an alternative antibiotic, but the study offers exciting options for other experiments to look for antibiotic compounds away from soil and a bit closer to home (this time our nostrils).
Work is also being done outside the labs as many global organisations, national governments and local health trusts are making sure that from healthcare professionals to scientists and even to you and me, everyone is aware of how they can make a difference. So what can we do as individuals? Mostly, it’s common sense. Always use your antibiotics as instructed by whoever prescribed them to you and aim to prevent infections as much as possible through regular hand washing, preparing and storing food properly, keeping vaccinations up to date and practising safer sex. On a personal level, you can see how relatively simple it is to help with this global issue, and hopefully these should be things you do already. Anybody could be infected by an antibiotic-resistant bug, so we all need to do our bit.
Photography credit: Samantha Celera