An Introduction to Antibiotic Resistance

Hello everyone, hope all is well.

Antibiotic resistance remains one of the most concerning health issues the world faces, the amount and variety of resistant bacteria continues to grow and health professionals are concerned about the future effectiveness of the antibiotics we take for granted. We should be concerned too.

I want to begin this campaign by explaining to you as clearly and simply as I can what exactly antibiotic resistance is and why you should care. So let’s begin.

What are bacteria?

Bacteria are single celled microbes that exist in every corner of the Earth, including inside us! As they are only single celled they cannot be seen by the human eye individually, but they are there. There are an estimated 5 million trillion trillion bacteria on Earth at any one time, with a biomass (total cumulative weight) equalling that of all plants combined!

The reason for so many bacteria being present is due to the way bacteria reproduce, not through sexual means like the animal kingdom, but asexually. Bacteria will literally split themselves in half becoming two individual microbes each with their own DNA copy, although this DNA copy may contain errors or ‘genetic variance’ which will become important later as these imperfections are what help the bacteria resist our medications.

The rate at which bacteria split depends on the type of bacteria and the surrounding conditions (temperature, energy sources, oxygen supply) but the fastest bacteria types such as E. Coli can divide (doubling the amount) every 20 minutes! Meaning that after six hours one bacteria will have become over 6 million!

Why do bacteria cause illness?

So if bacteria are everywhere why aren’t we constantly sick and dying, you may ask. Because not all bacteria harm us, in fact some bacteria like the types that live in our digestive systems actually aide us helping to break down food and create vitamins and minerals for us. These healthy bacteria that live within us are given the collective term of “normal flora” .

We become ill when foreign bacteria enter our bodies and begin to multiply, killing or preventing the growth of our normal flora. Some bacteria also produce toxins which can kill or paralyse our cells. Often the illness that we feel is not the direct effects of the invading bacteria but of our own immune system fighting back.

What are antibiotics?

Our immune system does a fantastic job of keeping our bodies healthy and safe, sometimes however an illness may occur at an inopportune time such as when our immune systems are suppressed (due to other health issues or a poor diet) or when we are too busy and simply don’t have time for our immune system to take its time. In some other cases the illness just may be far to strong for out immune system to handle on its own. In these cases antibiotics may be used.

Antibiotics are medications that kill bacteria, not viruses, parasites or fungi, ONLY bacteria.

Even then not all antibiotics will kill all bacteria, specific strains of bacteria react to different types of antibiotics, some bacteria need to be treated with a strong dose all at once, other bacteria need to be killed with a small dose over a longer time frame.

There are two specific types of antibiotics:

  1. Bacteriocidal – these antibiotics kill bacteria directly
  2. bacteriostatic – these antibiotics slow the bacteria’s ability to grow and reproduce allowing them to be killed by the immune system.

Antibiotics have literally changed the world since their discovery and development in the late 1920’s, allowing humans to live longer, healthier lives. However in recent years the effectiveness of antibiotics has begun to decline as bacteria develop resistance.

How do bacteria become resistant? 

The first method bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics is through developing resistance through genetic mutation. Many antibiotics work by targeting and inactivating specific proteins within the bacterial cell, if the bacteria does not have this particular protein (through a genetic mutation) then the antibiotic will have no effect. In a similar matter a genetic mutation may affect the bacteria’s cell wall or membrane affecting its permeability, not even allowing the antibiotic into the cell to reach the targeted proteins.

The second method through which bacteria can develop resistance is by taking mutated antibiotic resistant segments of DNA from other bacteria who developed them the first way. Bacteria have the ability to ‘conjugate’ to briefly join together and share DNA. Bacteria can also absorb fragments of DNA from dead bacteria and incorporate it into their own genome.

Bacteria that develop resistance through method one or two will pass the resistance through to the next generations who, unless another genetic mutation occurs undoing it, will be resistant as well. These generations of resistant bacteria are known as a ‘strain’.

Bacteria have a greater instance of becoming resistant when incorrectly treated with antibiotics. If an individual begins taking a prescription but does not finish it, there is a good chance that they are only killing off the weak bacteria and letting the resistant bacteria survive and be able to multiply. It is vital therefore that the public is educated in the responsible usage of antibiotics.

Impacts of resistance? 

Antibiotics are difficult to create, the rate of newly developed antibiotics is slowing drastically. If bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, which are prescribed for minor illnesses such as colds and flu, then these medications will no longer be affective when major illnesses occur. If individuals cannot be treated easily then they have a greater chance of spreading these resistant bacteria which will multiply the issue (and the bacteria), perhaps leading to a greater frequency in global epidemics.

So it is up to us to spread the word and promote the responsible usage of antibiotics. Please share this article across social media, comment on our posts and be sure to follow us on all the relevant sites.

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