Early in the twentieth century, antibiotics changed the world of medicine. But we could be losing our best weapon against bacterial infections – and you could be contributing to it.
In the days before antibiotics, many bacterial infections, such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, proved to be fatal to millions around the world. Also, more soldiers died subsequently of infected wounds than on the battlefield itself.
In the modern world, most bacterial infections can be beaten by a quick course of antibiotics. Sudden death as a result of bacterial infection has become a distant memory to most people in developed countries.
The bacteria have, however, not disappeared and as a result of overuse and misuse of antibiotics, they are making a comeback. Disease-causing bacteria are living organisms that can evolve and adapt, and they are finding ways to survive the antibiotics we use to fight them. And they are getting stronger.
Misuse of antibiotics
There are two ways in which people misuse antibiotics: by taking them for minor ailments, or when they are not needed (such as for viral illnesses, for which they are ineffective), and not completing the course which they have been prescribed.
If you take antibiotics when your body could fight the infection by itself (given an extra day or two), you could weaken your immune response to bacterial infections. That means they might not work as well when you really need them to do their life-saving job.
Many people take antibiotics until they feel better, and then they don’t take the last couple of tablets. If the bug has not been completely beaten, it can reappear in drug-resistant form, and is passed on to other people, stronger and now drug-resistant.
In 2007, doctors identified a strain of tuberculosis that was multi-drug resistant TB, and by 2017 there were 127 countries around the world where cases have been reported. But the problem is much more widespread than that. So-called superbugs and hospital-acquired infections (of which there are many) can be life-threatening. These are drug-resistant bacterial infections, which can thrive in hospital settings where there are many sick people and people with weakened immune systems in close quarters, who are susceptible to these infections, especially when sanitary practices are in any way lacking.
The four main things you can do to help fight this battle are:
- Don’t take antibiotics unless they are absolutely essential
- Always complete the prescribed course of antibiotics
- Cut short hospital stays as much as possible
- Wash your hands regularly (and especially if you touch things in public places, such as doorknobs and stair railings) and always keep basic hygiene rules in mind
A lengthy hospital stay to treat an infection such as this is something you would like to prevent. All medical schemes in South Africa will cover infection-related in-hospital treatment, whether you are on a comprehensive medical aid plan, an affordable medical aid option or just a hospital plan. But – prevention is better than cure.
By Susan Erasmus
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