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Researchers are learning more about the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Getty Images
  • Antibiotic resistance has doubled in the last 20 years.
  • Additionally a new study found one patient developed resistance to a last resort antibiotic in a matter of weeks.
  • Health experts say antibiotic prescriptions should only be given when absolutely necessary in order to avoid growing resistance.

Over the past decade, antibiotic resistance has emerged as one of the greatest public health threats.

Antibiotics have been used to prevent and treat bacterial infections since the 1940s when doctors first discovered the powerful drugs could save people’s lives.

But in recent decades overuse and misuse has resulted in infectious bacteria becoming resistant to these common drugs. Today, researchers have more details on just how severe antibiotic resistance has become and found evidence that we’ve reached a frightening new milestone.

New research published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy today discovered that resistance to one of the last resort drugs used to treat extremely drug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa can develop a lot more quickly than we originally thought.

A patient infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa (P. aeruginosa) — a bacteria that can cause a range of infections, including urinary tract infections, bone and joint infections, and respiratory infections — developed resistance to the antibiotic ceftolozane-tazobactam in just 22 days.

This discovery follows another European study, which found that resistance to antibiotics commonly used to treat a range of stomach infections has nearly doubled in 20 years

In fact, resistance to commonly used antibiotics — such as clarithromycin — is increasing at 1 percent each year, according to those findings, which researchers presented Monday at UEG Week Barcelona 2019.

Antibiotics can be extremely helpful and even lifesaving when used appropriately. But many health experts are concerned that if we continue to overuse and misuse them, they’ll lose their abilities to treat infections.

“There is concern that continued antibiotic resistance could lead us to a ‘post-antibiotic world’ in which infections are no longer treatable. This problem has been likened to a global public health threat on the level of that presented by climate change,” Dr. Stanley Deresinski, an infectious disease doctor with Stanford Health Care, told Healthline.

To measure just how resistant the population has become to antibiotics and identify which treatments can be used in the future, researchers conducted surveys on how effectively people responded to various antibiotics in 1998, 2008, and most recently, in 2018.

For the 2018 survey, the researchers studied 1,232 patients from 18 countries in Europe who had contracted a Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection, a harmful bacterium associated with gastric ulcer, lymphoma and gastric cancer.

The researchers determined that resistance to the antimicrobial clarithromycin — which is commonly used to treat H. pylori — had grown from 9.9 percent in 1998 to 21.6 percent in 2018.

In addition, resistance to other powerful antibiotics has grown significantly as well. The resistance rate for levofloxacin has risen to 17 percent, and the rate for metronidazole to 42 percent.

Lastly, the researchers noticed that resistance to amoxicillin, tetracycline, and rifampicin compounds increased as well.

According to the study, the rates of resistance were highest in Southern Italy (37 percent), Croatia (35 percent), and Greece (30 percent).

Meanwhile, resistance rates in the United States have also soared, according to health experts.

“To see some countries with over 1/3 of all H. pylori infections resistant to clarithromycin (one of a combination of antibiotics used to treat H. pylori) is shocking. Things have been moving this way in the U.S., with estimates of clarithromycin resistance bordering 19 percent,” says Dr. Arun Swaminath, the director of the inflammatory bowel disease program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

If the United States doesn’t become more prudent with antibiotic use, what’s happening in southern Italy and Croatia could soon be our own future, Swaminath said.

The more we use antibiotics, the higher the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance is, explains Dr. Richard Martinello, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases expert.

“The use of antibiotics forces the evolution of resistant bacteria, and growth of these resistant bacteria are favored when antibiotics are present,” says Martinello.

Essentially, that bacteria mutates into a version that’s developed resistance, allowing them to survive and multiply in the presence of antibiotics.

And, as microbes become more resistance to antibiotics, doctors encounter a higher number of patients with infections that cannot be treated with antibiotics, Martinello said, adding that this can frequently lead to death or other potentially permanent health complications.

According to the health experts, we need to slow down the use of antibiotics and use them only when necessary.

“Physicians prescribing antibiotics need to exercise discretion and only prescribe antibiotics when they may help patients. It has been estimated that in the upwards of 50 percent of prescriptions for antibiotics are for health conditions, such as colds, which will not be helped by antibiotics,” Martinello said.

Additionally, patients also need to recognize the limitations of antibiotics.

“There is a patient expectation that antibiotics are cure-alls for colds, sore throats, URIs, diarrhea to name a few,” says Dr. Theodore Strange, the associate chair of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital.

Patients must only use them as prescribed and should return any unused antibiotics to their pharmacy.

“Antibiotics are necessary only when indicated for specific bacterial diseases and should be of the appropriate type, in the appropriate dose, [for] the appropriate amount of time,” Strange said. “They are not ‘cure-alls’ for all.”

Antibiotic resistance has emerged as one of the greatest threats to public health in recent years. Now, new research shows just how big of a threat it is.

A new study found that resistance to commonly used antibiotics has nearly doubled in 20 years. Another found that resistance to antibiotics is developing faster than ever, with one patient becoming resistant in just 22 days.

Health experts agree that in order to mitigate the issue, people need to use antibiotics only when necessary.