Last week, bad news emerged from China: resistance to one of the globe’s last remaining antibiotics effective against a lethal group of gram-negative bacteria had been discovered in bacteria in pork, pigs and some humans. It is only a matter of time before this resistance expands to worldwide bacteria, fueling the continued upsurge of superbugs – parasites, fungi, viruses and bacteria that are impenetrable to our best medicines.
As it is, one South Asian child dies every five minutes due to drug-resistant bacteria, while about 25,000 Europeans perish each year from similar infections.
Professor Marc Mendelson, head of Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine at the University of Cape Town, states that the issue of resistance in South Africa is very serious for bacterial infections including non-TB and TB.
Topping the list of bacteria other than TB that are developing resistance are those that cause skin and soft tissue infections, gonorrhea, urinary tract infections and pneumonia.
Mendelson adds that certain bacteria in South Africa is becoming so resistant, that they are either untreatable or there are only antibiotics of last resort.
However, this week’s bad news from China means that even the last-resort antibiotics are under threat. About 70 years ago, Colistin was discovered, but it became unpopular because it had some possibly serious side-effects. Because it was not widely-used for about 20 years, it maintained its effectiveness against a serious group of gram-negative bacteria which had been mutating to resist other antibiotics. About 10 years ago, under threat of failing medicines, medical experts brought back colistin use, even though it was only supposed to be prescribed in an emergency. However, earlier this year, during a test for drug resistance, resistance to colistin was discovered in the E. coli bacteria in pigs and some humans in south China.
Even though health experts have appealed that the use of colistin be heavily regulated, its use has become regular in factory farms in China as farmers frequently feed their livestock with a variety of medicines to make sure that the path from birth to the slaughter-house is disease free and fast. The mass use of antibiotics in animals is one of the main causes of worldwide antibiotic resistance. The other cause is the over-use of antibiotics in humans that is fueled by the ignorance of doctors and patient demand.
Hospital patients are especially vulnerable to drug-resistant infection due to the fact that their immune systems are weak and some are on drips or ventilation or have open wounds – easy sites for infection. Last year, the first South African patient with klebsiella pneumonia resistant to all antibiotics was recorded.
Dr. Marion Weston who runs a practice in integrative medicine in Cape Town states that approximately 90% of flus are viral and antibiotics fail to work against them. However, because majority of acute infections clear within 7 – 10 days, people think they have worked.
In order to help eliminate the requirement for antibiotics, the causes of infection need to be addressed, as well as the lack of access to sanitation and clean water.