Are Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria the Next Global Health Crisis?

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The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of managing infections properly globally and the need for stewardship networks among partners.

Modern advancements in medicine have helped increase life expectancy, quality of life and, in some cases, eradicate diseases and infections that were previously considered deadly.

However, the use of antibiotics for more common ailments may be leading us into another global health crisis. One of the fastest-growing fears among many investigators tasked with preventing pandemic-level threats is these ever-evolving, resistant bacteria. Because of the common prescription of antibiotics for everyday illnesses, these bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to available antibiotics, becoming better at surviving these medications and leaving individuals with life-threatening infections with few effective drugs left to treat them.

The frequency with which antibiotics are prescribed is extremely high, including for illnesses that they are largely ineffective in treating, such as bronchitis or colds. Much like showing our cards too soon, the excessive use of antibiotics provides an opportunity for harmful bacteria and makes it easier for them to adapt or get around that treatment. This leads to bacteria ultimately mutating and evolving to increasingly dangerous strains.

Additionally, these antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread quickly in many ways: between animals and humans or flowing down waterways to infect livestock on farms where they might then contaminate the food supply.

The Antimicrobial Stewardship Program (ASP) at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center collaborates with partners across campus through the OSU Infectious Diseases Institute to approach the problem of antimicrobial resistance from a One Health perspective, with the understanding that animal, environmental, and human health are all intertwined. This program works to identify resistant bacteria and educate about responsible use, so that these antibiotics are not over-prescribed, especially for illnesses that they are relatively ineffective in treating.

Through the One Health approach, we can look at the big picture and identify where these bacteria are living and mutating, whether that be in medical centers, rivers, veterinary clinics, or wastewater treatment plants. All play a role in this problem, and by looking at them holistically, we can identify all potential contributions to the solution and find the best places to intervene.

The program not only connects experts from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine but also investigators in environmental sciences, food agriculture, microbiology, pharmacy, and public health. New types of resistant bacteria are being identified through animal and water sample cultures grown in laboratories, bacterial infections are tracked in patients to identify threats, and education about responsible prescribing practices are offered to providers to ensure the right drugs are prescribed at the right dosages for the appropriate durations.

Since the inception of the ASP, we have made important discoveries about how microorganisms that, after becoming tolerant to specific disinfectants, would automatically become resistant to a wide range of antibiotics, as seen in 2018 by The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine’s program. As a result, new disinfecting practices have been put into place everywhere from hospitals to pig farms all over the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of managing infections properly on a global level and the need for stewardship networks among global partners to help prevent dangerous future infections. With collaborative efforts such as ASP, the sharing of information will help solve this global issue and prevent dangerous infections.