We as humans have come a long way in a relatively short period of time on this planet.  We have gone from massive human loss of life due to infectious diseases just 100 years ago, to where we don’t think much about the destructive little critters today.  Oh, we know they are out there, but when we get an infection, we can pop a little pill and be right back on our way, right? Well maybe not for much longer.  Let me explain.

The first antibiotics were used during WWII, less than seventy years ago.  Before that most people died before their fiftieth birthday from some type of infection.  Vaccines also took off in the first part of the twentieth century and between vaccines and antibiotics, life spans began to increase dramatically.

All was well with the world.  Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s something started to happen.  Some antibiotics began to not work so well.  The germs were becoming resistant. They developed ways to protect themselves and go on infecting.  We made stronger antibiotics and the germs became resistant to them.  So we started engineering antibiotics, super strong, invincible “gorillacillins”, the germs didn’t stand a chance, right?  Wrong. As fast as we could make the new drugs, the bugs figured out ways to fight back.

To complicate things, many new infections began to appear. The early 1980s brought many new challenges. AIDS was big on the scene, MRSA appeared, a strange new disease popped up at a convention of Legionnaires, and tuberculosis was coming back stronger than ever.  Next came; anthrax, Small Pox, Monkey Pox, Mad Cow, West Nile, Hanta Virus, toxic E.coli, bird flu, swine flu, seal flu.  The beat goes on.

But we, as humans, felt safe knowing antibiotics were there for us.  Antibiotics were so easy. We took them for anything and everything, every sniffle and sneeze.  It didn’t matter that we had a virus, (antibiotics don’t work for viral infections).  We also had the bad habit of taking antibiotics for a few days, then feeling better, stashing the rest of the bottle away for the next cough or sore throat. We thought it couldn’t hurt.  Well, it did hurt.  All this misuse of antibiotics made it easier for the bugs to develop resistance. What we were doing was killing off the weak bacteria and leaving the stronger ones behind to produce stronger baby bacteria. The use of massive antibiotics for livestock and agriculture didn’t help either.

All this leaves us today facing a huge public health disaster.  We are losing antibiotics.  Some experts say we have 10-15 years left and antibiotics will be useless.  Pharmaceutical companies aren’t busting down doors to make new ones for several reasons, mostly antibiotics are not good business.  Besides, the germs become resistant almost as soon as the new drugs hit the market.

So what can we do? 

First: We have to use antibiotics correctly. Only take antibiotics for bacterial infections, and take them as directed; all of them, every last pill even if you feel fine on day 2.

Second: We must learn more about preventing infections.  Hand washing is still the number one way to prevent infections.  Vaccines are very important. The development of safe, new vaccines may be one of our best bets for the next 20 years.

Third:  Know your body. Know the risk of developing an infection.  Stress, poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, and chronic diseases like diabetes increase the risk of infection.

Fourth:  Get good quality information.  Your husband’s, brother’s, barber may not be the best source of health information.  Remember, just because you read it in the paper, or see it on TV doesn’t make it true.  This is important, this is your health.  Go to www.cdc.gov or talk to your doctor.  Get the facts.

We got into this mess together and we will get out together.  The sun will come up tomorrow, and mankind will be there to see it.  Take care and stay healthy, and by the way…. go wash your hands.  Thanks for listening. Doris Dimmitt, Hospital Epidemiologist, Carson Tahoe Health.