Bacterial infections may become untreatable, research shows

Mar 21, 2013 | News

COURTESY Bmramon, from Wikimedia Commons. An OMA report warns that bacterial infections are growing resistant to antibiotics.

COURTESY Bmramon, from Wikimedia Commons. An OMA report warns that bacterial infections are growing resistant to antibiotics.

By Brandon Humber

The Ontario Medical Association is warning that resistance to antibiotics is becoming a serious threat to public health.

“There’s a growing number of bacteria that cause infections that have resistance to many, if not all, antibiotics we have in current clinical use,” said Director of McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research Dr. Gerry Wright.

Wright was commenting on research that was released this week. He said that there is a never-ending stream of these “superbugs” developing, that are hard to treat.

“Antibiotics are unique among drugs in that, when you start to use them, because of evolution, you immediately cause a selection process that results in their obsolescence,” he said.

Dr. Joan Robinson, Chair for the Canadian Pediatric Society’s Infectious Diseases and Immunization Committee, said that resistance to antibiotics is partly due to antibiotics being over-prescribed.

“Antibiotics have been used more and more commonly as the years have gone by,” Robinson said.

Over-prescription has been curbed in recent years as it was recognized that it was becoming a problem, but antibiotics are still given to patients who don’t necessarily need them, said Robinson, whose group is based in Ottawa.

“Lots of conditions like ear infections and sinusitis that don’t always need antibiotics are treated very commonly with antibiotics,” she said.

Another contributing factor is the use of antibiotics in animal feed to promote growth. Humans in turn eat those animals, Wright told Humber News.

“If you get a salmonella infection, it’s probably come from poultry, and if those chickens have been fed a lot of antibiotics, because of the way they’re growing up, that salmonella is probably going to be drug resistant,” Wright said.

Humber pharmacy technician professor, Christine Herbert told Humber News reporter Erin Eaton Wednesday that infections untreatable by antibiotics are already becoming a problem.

“Even with the best control measures, it is still possible to pick up an infection and if it happens to be one that we can’t treat then someone who has gone in for minor surgery may have dire consequences,” Herbert said.

Robinson said that the problem of resistance is not a new one, but it had worsened.

“Antibiotic resistance has been a recognized problem since pretty much back when antibiotics were first discovered,” Robinson said.

“It has become a much bigger issue in the last decade because our invention of new antibiotics is not keeping pace with the development of resistance,” she said.

The cost of health

Wright said pharmaceutical companies have decided not to pursue development of new antibiotics because they aren’t profitable.

“It takes just as much effort to find a new antibiotic as it does to find a new anti-cholesterol medicine, but the anti-cholesterol medicine you have to take every day, whereas the antibiotic you take for 10 days and you don’t have to take it anymore,” he said.

He said that most antibiotics currently in use were initially developed between 1945-1960 and that those antibiotics have simply been “tweaked” to avoid resistance, but that scientists have hit the wall with the ability to do that.

Now new antibiotics must be discovered, but Wright said pharmaceutical companies lack an incentive to pursue them.

“It’s hard to make a lot of money, it’s hard to get regulatory approval, and even if you can figure out those two things, it’s really just hard to get a new drug,” he said.

Wright said that, while he is hopeful that research will prevent resistance from becoming an epidemic, he is also fearful of what will happen if it doesn’t.

“We have a window of opportunity to do some good here before people start to really get sick, and it could be you, or it could be your kid, or it could be your grandmother,” he said.

“No one is safe from this,” he said.