May 15, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

For at least 3.5 billion years, bacteria have roamed the earth.  And survived.  How?  Mutation.  It’s what they do and they do it well.  There are “good” kinds of bacteria—like the ones that break down food in our digestive systems, and “bad” kinds—ones that cause infection and disease.  We call the “bad” kind “germs.”

Great news!  In the 20th century, scientists developed antibiotics—to treat people and animals infected by germs.


Here’s some bad news: a new study finds that new doctors are not adequately prepared to prescribe antibiotics.  Why is this an issue?  The over-prescription of antibiotic drugs has a direct and negative effect on strengthening antibiotic-resistant superbugs, like tuberculosis. 

In April, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the 12 bacteria—superbugs—that pose the “greatest threat to human health” because of their antibiotic resistance—they mutate frequently so that antibiotics don’t work on them.

So: why should med students care about antibiotic resistance?  Because they need to learn how and when to prescribe antibiotic drugs appropriately and effectively, otherwise those 12 superbugs will get stronger—and recruit others in their path.

Let’s talk shop:


1. What is antibiotic resistance?   

Imagine getting a bacterial infection: anything from a urinary tract infection to tuberculosis.  Now imagine that your doctor can’t treat it—not because there are no antibiotics, but because those bacterial infections have adapted to antibiotics and no longer respond to antibiotic drugs.

It’s happening.  And it’s not good.  In the 20th century, the discovery of antibiotics led doctors to treat all kinds of bacterial infections with laudable results.  Now, more than 150 million prescriptions are written for antibiotics every year.  The beauty of bacteria?  They mutate.  They don’t respond.  They have a will to live—and it could literally kill you.

Another problem?  Many of these prescriptions are for viral infections, like the common cold, flu, a majority of sore throats, coughs and bronchitis, most sinus infections, and most ear infections.  Guess what?  Antibiotics have no effect on viruses. 

With the over-prescription of antibiotic drugs, diseases like meningitis, pneumonia, and gonorrhea are becoming harder to treat. 


2. Why should you be worried about antibiotic resistance?

Lack of effective antibiotics will lead to an increased susceptibility to illnesses we now regard as “trivial.”  Pneumonia will become a worldwide killer again, as will tuberculosis.  Gonorrhea is already on the rise because it doesn’t respond well to antibiotics anymore. 

There’s no new class of drugs to deal with these superbugs—which means we have to wait until our science catches up with bacterial mutations.  It could take a while—after all, we’re competing with 3.5 billion years of successful mutation history. 

Here’s a big one: cancer patients depend on chemotherapy, which depends on effective antibiotic drugs.  Chemotherapy destroys cancerous cells—and white blood cells.  Our bodies use white blood cells to fight infections.  Chemotherapy patients take antibiotics as part of their treatment because chemotherapy essentially destroys their immune systems.  If there are no useful antibiotics, what will cancer patients do?  Chemotherapy will become an increasingly dangerous treatment.  Then what?


3. What should medical students and doctors do?

Take heed.  This is happening now.  It’s real.

You need to make sure you understand how to prescribe antibiotics correctly—the right drug for the right condition for the right amount of time. 

Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly—it’s one of the most effective measures to stop the transmission of bacterial (and viral) infections.

Educate yourself—and your peers—regularly.  Stay updated on antibiotic measures at your medical school or healthcare facilities.  Follow the CDC Guidelines—they’re updated regularly and will keep you informed.



Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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