Keeping Antibiotics Useful


There are currently strains of bacteria that we cannot treat with antibiotics; we need to stop this from happening as much as we can. And at Intermountain, we’re doing our part.

A little history

Most antibiotics are naturally made in soil and water, and they take eons to produce. They’re nature’s way of fighting bacteria. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic properties of penicillin, changing the medical world. We used it and other natural antibiotics to fight illnesses that were otherwise deadly. Penicillin was considered a miracle drug. But through the years, scientists realized that the antibiotics were losing their punch. Experts started warning against overuse, trying to get the medical community to be responsible.

Overexposure to antibiotics causes bacteria to develop resistance because they naturally mutate to prevent being wiped out. It’s a survival mechanism. Unfortunately, it takes a long, long time to build new antibiotics to fight the new, more resistant bacteria. By the 1970s and 80s, scientists were engineering new antibiotics as a fix to the resistance problem. Some thought we were in the clear, and for a time, we were. But, after decades, these antibiotics also started to fail. Now we know that all antibiotics eventually fail.

The situation today

Scientists say we are now in the “post-antibiotic era,” trying to merely maintain some of the effect we can have over infection-causing bacteria. This is a public health concern and everybody’s problem.

We have a lot of medical advancements that are amazing, like organ transplants and other life-saving procedures…but if we can’t fight infection, we can’t perform the procedures.

What can we do?

How do we fix this problem? There are several ways to help, but the biggest impact we can have is through deliberate “antibiotic stewardship.” It’s estimated that 30-50% of antibiotic use is inappropriate. This means that some doctors prescribe antibiotics when it may not be the best practice, giving the bacteria a better chance to build up resistance. We need to be good stewards and judicious with our antibiotic use. This means tracking physicians, dentists, and other medical professionals’ antibiotic prescribing habits, and instructing them about best practice for antibiotics, along with incentivizing them to use antibiotics properly.

By 2017 the federal government will require that all hospitals track all use of antibiotics to ensure proper use for reimbursement. We also need to set parameters with patients on when to expect an antibiotic. This is a public health concern that affects everyone. It is our hope that antibiotic stewardship will buy the US sufficient time to research and implement more systems and strategies, and bring this important information to the world.