Antibiotics — the end of an era?
In 2017, a woman in Philadelphia died from a colistin resistant E. coli urinary tract infection. There have now been reported, especially in animals, the detection of bacteria completely resistant to all known antibiotics.
Every year in the United States of America, it is estimated that there are 23,000 deaths related to superbugs resistant to the vast majority of antibiotics. We have been told for a number of years that antibiotics are overprescribed by the medical profession for infections that are typically not bacterial. In the pre-antibiotic era, it was not unusual for people to die from standard bacterial illnesses such as pneumonia, urinary tract infection and even tonsillitis. Death from perioperative wound infection was also very common.
The introduction of antibiotics around the middle of last century saw a dramatic change in the way that medicine was practiced. Unfortunately, doctors prescribed antibiotics for all manner of infections, typically viruses, for which antibiotics have absolutely no effect. Many people still do not realise that antibiotics make a viral illness worse by killing our normal healthy bacteria that live throughout the body in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, helping fight off viral infections.
The other major source of excessive antibiotic use is in the veterinarian world and also in domestic animals. Therefore, with this excessive use, the only way bacteria can survive is to develop resistance to antibiotics which has clearly happened. Many experts believe that we are only somewhere between 10 to 20 years away from the post-antibiotic era and thus if human beings are to continue reasonable survival, we need to develop clever ways to combat this issue.
Interestingly, a therapy that has been used for many years in Russia is known as bacteriophages.
Bacteriophages are viruses that infected bacteria, leaving the human cell untouched. Interestingly, these are highly specific to certain strains and spare healthy bacteria in the gut. A recent study of 31 people (in a placebo-controlled trial) who had non-specific gastrointestinal symptoms were given bacteriophage therapy for a four week period with two weeks of washout and then this technique was reversed with the placebo group receiving active treatment and the active treatment group then receiving placebo.
When the 31 people were given the bacteriophage therapy which was specifically designed to attack E. coli, a pathogenic gut bacteria, there was a significant reduction in symptoms and a reduction in inflammatory markers related to allergies, also with the increase in healthy gut bacteria such as Bifidobacteria. Not only was there a reduction in E. coli but also a significant reduction in clostridium species which are one of the causes of food poisoning. These people also did not experience any side-effects from the treatment.
The treatment is also being proposed for chronic diarrhoea and to generally improve the presence of healthy gut bacteria. Using this scientific reasoning, there is no reason why bacteriophages could not be used for all bacterial diseases once the specific viruses have been developed.
Regardless, the medical scientific world is well aware that we need a fresh new approach to treating bacterial illnesses because if we don’t develop new therapies we will see the return to the pre-antibiotic era where many people died unnecessarily.