Modern Medicine And The Overuse Of Antibiotics
There is no doubt that advances in medicine over the past century has been beneficial to human health. With the discovery of new medicines, the improvement to surgical techniques, and the application of public health education for prevention of disease, life expectancy in the United States has increased from 49.24 years in 1900 to 77.7 years today. However, in some cases, modern medicine is creating new health problems that we must now conquer, including the development of drug-resistant bacteria due to the overuse of antibiotics.
Antibiotics are among the most frequently prescribed medicines in the US. They cure disease by killing bacteria or inhibiting its growth. The first antibiotic — penicillin — was discovered by Alexander Flemming in 1928. Today, there are over 100 different types of antibiotics available.
Obviously, antibiotics have very important uses. Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs caused by bacteria, once killed one-third of all people who contracted the disease. Today, only 5 percent of Americans die from pneumonia. But doctors began using the drugs more than they were actually needed.
A 2005 study by faculty at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health found that between 54 and 66 percent of doctors prescribe unnecessary antibiotics to children with conditions such as sore throats, colds, and respiratory viruses. (Antibiotics are not effective against viruses.)
More recently, researchers are connecting the rise in drug resistant bacteria, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium difficile (C.Diff), with the excessive use of antibiotics. Sexually transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea and Chlamydia, are also becoming resistant to the drugs used to treat them.
Over-prescription of antibiotics may be the primary cause of drug-resistant bacteria, but not the only cause. Officials from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) now say that there is "unequivocal evidence" of a link between overuse of antibiotics in healthy livestock grown for food and drug-resistant diseases in humans. Farmers often use the drugs to promote growth and fend off diseases that spread due to crowding.
The FDA has recently issued new guidance to the livestock industry recommending — but not requiring — the "judicious use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals."
Today, thousands of people die each year of antibiotic resistant infections. In addition, prolonged illness, additional tests, treatments and hospitalizations cost both the consumer and the health care industry millions of dollars. Indirectly, overuse of antibiotics and its resulting infections lead to lost income and reduction in productivity of the US workforce.
American health care consumers can take steps to protect themselves against antibiotic overuse. Patients and parents of children can ask questions before requesting a prescription for an antibiotic. Understand that most ear infections, cold, influenza, coughs, sore throats, and gastroenteritis (stomach flu) is caused by viral infections, not bacterial, and antibiotics will be ineffective and could cause more harm than good.