General Background: Antibiotic Resistance, A Societal Problem

How can antibiotic resistance harm humans?
If large numbers of bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, it will be more difficult and more expensive to treat human bacterial infections. When antibiotics fail to work, consequences include extra visits to the doctor, hospitalization or extended hospital stays, a need for more expensive antibiotics to replace the older ineffective ones, lost workdays and, sometimes, death.

Why is antibiotic resistance a public health problem?
Antibiotics are called "societal drugs," since antibiotic resistance can pass from bacterium to bacterium (see About antibiotic resistance), and resistant bacterial infections can pass from person to person. Thus, antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance can eventually affect an entire community.

Why is antibiotic resistance an ecological problem?
When antibiotics are used in humans or animals, approximately 80 - 90% of the ingested antibiotics are not broken down, but pass through the body intact and enter the environment as waste. Thus, they retain their ability to affect bacteria and promote antibiotic resistance even after they enter the soil or water as a waste product.  (See APUA's fact sheet, "The Need to Improve Antibiotic Use in Food Animals")

Do people become resistant to antibiotics?
No, this is a common misconception. People may exhibit allergic reactions to antibiotics, but they are not resistant to them. It is the bacteria themselves, not the infected host, which become resistant.

How serious is the problem of antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotic resistance is found all over the world and has become a very serious problem in the treatment of disease. The 1995 US Office of Technology Assessment report attributed a cost of $1.3 billion (1992 dollars) per year for antibiotic-resistant infections due to six species of bacteria in US hospitals. While the real magnitude of the problem is unknown, the monetary cost of treating antibiotic resistant infections worldwide is estimated to be many billions of dollars per year. Some experts predict that, as resistance to antibiotics is increasing at a faster pace than it can be controlled, the future will resemble the pre-antibiotic era. Others are more optimistic that research and careful drug management can reverse the trend if global efforts are focused on recognizing and controlling it.


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