Doctors are calling it a crisis in modern medicine. They say thousands are now dying each year in the United States because the bacteria causing their illnesses are resistant to all available antibiotics. They don't work.
"It's very scary and very concerning and that's why the Centers for Disease Control is focusing so much attention on this issue," said John Ahern, who works in pharmacy services and infection disease at Fletcher Allen Health Care.
The CDC says more than 2 million Americans are falling prey to these drug-resistant infections, including C-difficile, gonorrhea, pneumonia, salmonella, and MRSA. Once only found in the hospital, those MRSA infections are now widespread in the community. And what's to blame? The overuse of antibiotics.
"Micro-organisms have been designed in such a way that when they see anti-microbials they're able to develop ways of averting their effects. So, a general rule is when you use an antibiotic to treat a micro-organism, there's a strong probability that eventually you will develop a resistance to that antibiotic," Ahern said.
And if the antibiotic doesn't work, that can mean a variety of problems, including a longer hospital stay, or death. Ahern says medical residents at the hospital are handed a guide on day one. They and the attending physicians follow its recommendations when prescribing antibiotics. But the public needs to help, too.
"One, if you're prescribed an antibiotic by your physician, it's important to take the antibiotic exactly as it's prescribed. You need to finish the whole course of therapy. That's very important," Ahern advised.
It's also important not to use antibiotics for things they can't treat-- viral infections like colds, flu and some sore throats. Ahern says new drugs need to be developed, but so far that's not happening.
"We're really reaching a point where in modern medicine we could be seeing a post-antibiotic era, where we're seeing the emergence of micro-organisms in the hospital and also sometimes in the community where we no longer have effective antibiotics to treat those infections," Ahern said.
And that's a frightening proposition and it's the reason federal health officials are trying to raise awareness about this growing crisis in modern medicine.
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