Advances in modern medicine are meant to improve human health, but some are having an unwanted evolutionary side effect—antibiotic-resistant superbugs are proliferating.
Anyone doubting the usefulness of evolutionary theory in modern medicine needs only to look at the study of antibiotic resistance and the mutations that are resulting from it.
It’s a case where looking at how diseases form and mutate in the face of resistance has implications both in theoretical knowledge and practical disease-fighting approach.
First, the basics. Antibiotic resistance is when a pathogen can survive exposure to an antibiotic, most commonly caused by a genetic mutation.
The significance is that these mutated genes that offer additional resistance can be transferred to other bacteria horizontally via conjugation, transduction or transformation. That means the desired trait can be shared, and shared quickly.
When a bacterium carries several resistance genes, it’s described as being multiresistant … or, more commonly, as a “superbug.”
The single biggest reason for the modern superbug is the misuse of antibiotics. Though there were resistant bacteria prior to the discovery and deployment of penicillin, the widespread use of antibiotics over the past few decades has led to a massive growth in their numbers.
Some countries make antibiotics available over the counter. Others that don’t may over-prescribe them or give them out due to pressure from the patient for conditions in which they are ineffective.
Parents who grew up getting antibiotics at the drop of a hat may insist upon them for their children, and physicians may comply to avoid an argument or because of excessive caution and the belief that it will at least do no harm.
Antibiotics are also used on a wide scale on livestock to increase their weight. That has also had a large effect on the development of resistant strains.
Pigs, for example, are believed to be able to infect people with MSRA via meat consumption, close or direct contact, or through the environment.
Ironically, one of the biggest risks of exposure to superbugs are at medical facilities. If not properly sterilized on a frequent basis, surfaces can become a petri dish for drug-resistant strains.
Staph infections represent one of the earliest bacteria to have developed a resistance to penicillin, and Staphylococcus aureus is now the most frequently-identified drug-resistant pathogen found in hospitals in the United States.
In recent years, staph outbreaks have occurred in what many would assume to be safe, clean medical facilities, such as those attached to military barracks or sports facilities.
Preventing superbugs is difficult. Resisting the urge to prescribe antibiotics so frequently would be a good start, but the pathogens have been shown to mutate quickly while the approval process for drugs to cure them has been far slower.
Superbugs are likely to continue to be a danger for years to come. As a result, we might expect the conventional use of antibiotics is to decrease as well.
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