When overuse makes a
boon a curse
ANTIBIOTICS are the chemical substances produced by micro-organisms which have the capacity to inhibit the growth or to kill other micro-organisms. Antibiotics which were originally produced by living organisms have subsequently been produced synthetically. The beginning of antibiotic era is a fascinating story.
A beginning was made by Pasteur and Jouvert in 1877, but the substance produced appeared too toxic to be used in human beings. The real antibiotic era started in 1928, when an English microbiologist, Alexander Flemming, who was working on the growth of certain bacteria went on vacation for two weeks and on his return found that on certain areas of his petri-dishes wherever there was a little mould, the growth of bacteria had been inhibited. This mould was penicillium-notatum and thus was born as the first antibiotic — penicillin.
The uses of antibiotics
This, indeed, is
self-evident and I hardly need to mention that antibiotics have played
a great role in alleviating the sufferings and saving countless lives.
One has always wondered how did the doctors practice medicine before
this era. For the treatment of infections they had only agents like
arsenicals and other very toxic compounds. Respiratory infections like
pneumonia and bacterial throat infections, treatment of typhoid fever
and other intestinal infections like dysentery, tuberculosis, sexually
transmitted diseases like gonorrhoea and syphilis, of the nervous
system like meningitis, infective diseases infecting the heart and its
valves, osteomyelitis of the bones and now AIDS, all came under the
spell of antibiotics. This list is not at all exhaustive but only an
example of common diseases.
The problem of resistance
It is very tempting for the doctor as well as the patient to use an antibiotic whenever there is an infection or the possibility of an infection. It is perhaps not in public knowledge that the use and abuse of antibiotics is as common in the veterinary practice as it is the humans. According to a report of the Task Force on Antibiotic Resistance of the American Society of Microbiology, 50 per cent antibiotics are used in the humans and 50 per cent in animals.
Among the humans early 20 per cent are used in the hospital setting and 80 per cent in the community. In the animals 20 per cent in use for therapeutic purposes and 80 per cent as growth promoters. It was estimated that 50 per cent among the humans and may be over 50 per cent in the animal kingdom, the use was questionable and unscientific.
This widespread use brought a stage where resistance to antibiotics has emerged as a major problem in medicine. It was not realised early enough that it is not possible to eradicate bacteria, in fact it is not desirable either. Pushed to the wall, bacteria used very ingenious methods to survive and started becoming resistant to the antibiotics. The bacteria become resistant either by changing their internal genetic make up or borrow a piece of genetic material from other bacteria which were already resistant.
To begin with, this resistance was noticed in the hospital setting where antibiotics were used rather intensively. As expected, it has gone to the community now. Amongst the bacteria producing pneumonia, tuberculosis, urinary tract infection and sore throat, the resistance is now prevalent in the community at large. As noted in these columns earlier, the multidrug resistance in tuberculosis in the world at large and in our country particularly is playing havoc.
In a meeting held at Copenhagen, 1998, on antibiotic resistance, the famous microbiologist from Guys’ Hospital, London, Dr Norman Simmons, put it rather candidly, "We screwed up and we are to say so and apologise. Doctors were given the wonderful gift of antibiotics, but are destroying them through indiscriminate use". A committee has recently been set up in United Kingdom on the recommendations of House of Lords to go into the problem. The committee is headed by Prof Richard Wise. According to him, of the antibiotics used in the community, 60 per cent are given for upper respiratory infections like sore throat and common cold and over 80-90 per cent of these infections are viral in nature where antibiotic has no role. He compared the prescribing of antibiotics to smoking, hard to give up because the link between action taken and reward is not immediate.
Antibiotic resistance is not an iesoteric subject. This concerns every doctor and patient. I have seen antibiotic resistance emerging in typhoid, urinary tract infection, tuberculosis, pneumonias, meningitis and other diseases. In typhoid, for instance, drug like chlorophenicol, Septran and ampicillin became useless one after the other and resistance is becoming evident to the present set up of antibiotics.
Same is true about the tuberculosis and others. The problem has to be recognised by the leaders of medical profession, pharmaceutical industry, doctors in the community and public at large. The menace of freely ‘on the counter’ available antibiotics in our country makes the problem much worse than in the western society where antibiotics cannot be purchased without proper prescription.