At the beginning of the 20th century, the average life expectancy was only 47 years, primarily due to death from bacterial infections. The world changed when Sulfanilamide became the first antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections, marking a new era of antibiotics, vaccines and improved public health – saving millions of lives and increasing life expectancy to almost 79 years of age.

Since the 1970s, few new classes of antibiotics have been brought to market, and the number of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics has continued to rise. Antibiotic-resistant infections have more than doubled in the past decade. Today they are responsible for 23,000 deaths in America each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As antibiotic-resistant bacteria become more prevalent and share their resistance with other bacteria, we risk returning to the pre-antibiotic days where a simple cut or scrape could be deadly.

Yet we take antibiotics for granted, even asking healthcare providers for them before we know what’s really wrong with us. As a result, up to half of all antibiotics prescribed are unnecessary or not prescribed and used appropriately. The use, and overuse, of antibiotics is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotics only treat infections caused by bacteria, such as strep throat and certain types of pneumonia. Antibiotics do not work on viruses, which cause colds or the flu. If you take an antibiotic for a virus, not only are you paying for medicine you don’t need, but you also put yourself at risk for unpleasant side effects, such as diarrhea and allergic reactions, and other serious illnesses. Most importantly, you may be preventing the future antibiotics you take from working effectively.

Each time you take an antibiotic, some bacteria are killed, but a remnant of resistant bacteria may grow and multiply. Eventually, bacteria once treatable with antibiotics become resistant, and the antibiotic is no longer effective. Each year, the CDC estimates that at least 2 million people acquire serious infections with bacteria that are resistant to one or more of the antibiotics designed to treat those infections.

Antibiotic-resistant infections also play a role in increasing healthcare costs – some estimates suggest by as much as $20 billion. Antibiotic-resistant infections require treatments that are longer, more expensive, less effective and/or less safe.  One of the emerging antibiotic-resistant infections, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), kills up to half of all people who get blood infections.

We must preserve the antibiotics that are available. The CDC, Indiana State Department of Health, hospitals and other organizations are working diligently to fight antibiotic resistance.

Here are some simple things you and your family can do to help them – and yourself:

  • Get vaccinated and be sure your vaccinations are up to date.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider if you’re at risk for certain infections.
  • Practice good hygiene – especially hand-washing.
  • If you are ill, visit your doctor to receive a proper diagnosis and determine if an antibiotic is really  the “right” treatment.
  • If you are prescribed an antibiotic, take it exactly as prescribed.

We are in a race against bacteria that are faster and more agile than we are. Bacteria will eventually become resistant to our antibiotics, and we can’t stop them. But, we can slow them down while technology and medicine catch up. We have to all work together to keep new antibiotic resistance from developing and “Be Antibiotics Aware.”

Amy Beth Kressel is medical director of Eskenazi Health Infection Prevention and Control.. Alan Wright is chief medical officer at Roche Diagnostics Corp.

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