Of Bugs and Drugs

Author Russ Greenfield, MD, Medical Director for PurThread

Author Russ Greenfield, MD, Medical Director for PurThread

Question. True or False?: Antibiotics cure infections.
Answer. True. And sometimes false.

Alexander Fleming, the scientist who discovered Penicillin in 1928, in his laboratory.

Alexander Fleming, the scientist who discovered Penicillin in 1928, in his laboratory.

Carefully chosen antibiotic therapy can help the body fight back against invading organisms that lead to infectious diseases; but not all infections are alike. Antibiotics don’t work against viruses—very few drugs do—nor do they work against fungi which require special agents for treatment. In addition, antibiotics don’t always work against the very bacteria they’re designed to contain and kill—a thorny problem, and one that is getting worse.

Bacteria can adapt and “learn” to evade the actions of some antibiotics. When this happens, the bacteria are said to be resistant to the antibiotic. Some microbes have become resistant not just to the primary antibiotic used against it, but to many secondary antibiotics as well. These are called multi-drug resistant organisms, or “superbugs.” As we see more and more superbugs, medical experts believe we may be on the threshold of a sobering new era in health care, the post-antibiotic era.1

The antibiotic era began with the discovery (1928) and first use of Penicillin (1942), and few things have so radically improved the healthcare landscape. Suddenly, the use of a pill or intravenous antibiotic could render once-fatal diseases fairly benign. Antibiotics soon became “the miracle in a pill” and, as medical advances occurred, more and different types of antibiotics were developed.

All too quickly, doctors and scientists became aware that some microbes were growing resistant to standard antibiotic regimens; but as long as new antibiotics were created with new ways to fight bacteria and other microbes, we felt relatively safe.

We’re not feeling as safe now.

Stay tuned to learn how we got to this state.

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Antibiotic resistance threatens in the United States, 2013.