Scientists have been studying bacteria since 1660 when the tiny microbes were first viewed under a microscope. Today we know that each of us have many trillions of microbial organisms living in and on our bodies, outnumbering our own cells 3 to 1; including vast numbers of bacteria which live in our intestines, helping break down undigested food, and contributing about 10 per cent of our energy whilst producing a variety of molecules that have an effect on our metabolism, immune system and even our brain.
Around the end of the First World War, the presence of bacteria was identified as the cause of infection in wounds and in the 1930’s, the first antibiotics were first used to combat the microbes.
Nothing hits gut populations like antibiotics. These drugs attack all gut bacteria, indiscriminately killing off billions of good and bad bacteria and upsetting the body’s natural balance. It is recognised today that this disruption can be a major trauma to the body, causing severe diarrhoea or even chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Even a relatively mild upset can have long-term consequences, like irritable bowel syndrome.
Imbalances in microbial flora have been linked to many conditions, from inflammatory bowel disease to type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and depression.
“If you are taking antibiotics it is important to take probiotics at the same time and afterwards, to replace the good bacteria”.
Taking probiotics alongside antibiotics can help. The lactic acid bacteria in probiotics don’t replace all the eradicated species, but they can outcompete or kill opportunistic pathogens advancing to take their place. They can also help digest lactose, give the immune system a boost and strengthen the gut barrier.
There are many different types of antibiotics and they are largely responsible for many of the medical advances we take for granted today. They are simple to take, effective and readily available and they are vital for the treatment of many chronic illnesses including cancer, diabetes and organ failure.
However, today, across the entire planet antibiotics are currently looked upon as a simple quick-fix and when we get any infection (even a cold), we simply ask for a course of antibiotics and our GPs willingly oblige by prescribing them, often inappropriately and often just to placate us.
But we are facing an apocalyptic time, when antibiotics become impotent against drug-resistant super bugs.
Hannah Devlin recently reported in the Times that a leading group of medical experts warn that we face greater dangers from drug-resistant infections than from climate change.
We are looking at a devastating scenario, not far from now, when people will die from routine operations, minor scratches and common infections because effective drugs have run out. Surgery will become a hit-and-miss affair.
We have witnessed the first signs in the last few years with the emergence of MRSA where around 5,000 people needlessly died in England last year because drugs were ineffective against these and other antibiotic-resistant strains of ‘super bugs’. And resistance is spreading to a wide spectrum of diseases
Professor Woodhouse and Dr Farrah are co-authors of an article in Nature, which calls for independent international leadership on this issue before the massive gains made possible by the discovery of penicillin are lost.
Doctors demand a ban of over-the-counter sales of antibiotics in such countries as India, a tighter regulation for sales over the Internet and a clamp down on the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
“US Farmers use 70% of antibiotics for growth promotion and a farmed salmon typically consumes its own weight in antibiotics by the time it is eaten”.
“The world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades will once again kill” said Keiji Fukuda of the World Health Organisation (WHO) “Within 20 years, we could be taken back to a 19th- century environment where everyday infections kill us as a routine”
Both GPs and the public need to understand the monster they are creating and both need educating on when and how to use antibiotics properly. For example if you are prescribed antibiotics, it is important that you fully complete the course otherwise drug-resistant strains are encouraged.
Worryingly, the problem is not even being properly monitored and the WHO reports that seven key bacteria responsible for conditions such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, blood poisoning and gonorrhoea and urinary infections are already becoming alarmingly resistant to drugs.