When antibiotics stop working: Local ecologist looks at alternative cause of antibiotic resistance

Stephanie Turner
Aiken Standard

Feb 8 2016 6:26 a.m.


Submitted Photo by Savannah River Ecology Lab J. Vaun McArthur, a senior research ecologist with the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia, samples sediments in Mill Creek. He has used substances from the streams of the Savannah River Site for several years to study antibiotic resistance.If you get sick with a bacterial disease such as bacterial pneumonia or have a wound that gets infected, your doctor probably would prescribe an antibiotic.

“Antibiotics have saved millions of lives since they were first introduced in the 1940s and 1950s. However, because they have been overused, many antibiotics are no longer effective against the bacteria they once killed,” according to NPS MedicineWise.

When the antibiotic no longer works on the bacterial growth it’s trying to fight, it is known as antibiotic resistance.

“Antibiotic-resistance occurs when an antibiotic has lost its ability to effectively control or kill bacterial growth; in other words, the bacteria are ‘resistant’ and continue to multiply in the presence of therapeutic levels of an antibiotic,” the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics states.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria is said to infect at least two million people in the U.S. annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Antibiotic resistance is a quickly growing, extremely dangerous problem. World health leaders have described antibiotic-resistant bacteria as ‘nightmare bacteria’ that ‘pose a catastrophic threat’ to people in every country in the world,” the organization said.

How it happens

“Antibiotics work by blocking vital processes in bacteria, killing the bacteria, or stopping them from multiplying. This helps the body’s natural immune system to fight the bacterial infection,” states NPS MedicineWise.

Sometimes antibiotic resistance is not within a person’s control, such as when the bacteria naturally resists the antibiotic.

However, sometimes the reason the resistance occurs is because patients overuse or incorrectly use antibiotics.

“Patients sometimes take antibiotics unnecessarily, to treat viral illnesses like the common cold,” the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics states.

Not taking the correct dosage also can be a cause.

“When bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, they start learning how to outsmart the drugs. This process occurs in bacteria found in humans, animals and the environment,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. “Each time bacteria learn to outsmart an antibiotic, treatment options are more limited, and these infections pose a greater risk to human health.”

Local study

“While the rapid emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has prompted the medical community, nonprofit organizations, public health officials and the national media to educate the public to the dangers of misusing and overusing antibiotics, the University of Georgia’s J. Vaun McArthur is concerned that there’s more to the problem than the misuse of common medications,” according to a news release.

Around 15 years ago, McArthur, a senior research ecologist with the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and Odum School of Ecology and ecology teacher, was testing a new concept in stream ecology for another study when he decided also to look at the levels of antibiotic resistance of bacteria found in the streams of the Savannah River Site.

“The site was constructed and closed to the public before antibiotics were used in medical practices and agriculture,” McArthur said in a news release.

What was discovered came as a surprise.

“What happened was right in the mid-reaches of the stream, the level of antibiotic resistance went way up, and in the next, it started coming back down again,” McArthur said. “There’s never been antibiotics dumped into the streams of the SRS.”

Wondering how it was possible that antibiotic resistance was showing up, the research team looked further into the matter.

“We looked at a few other things in the stream and saw the heavy metals in the sediments that had come from site operations … were very high in those same areas that the antibiotic resistance was going on,” McArthur said.

In general, heavy toxic metals found in the environment include mercury, which can come from leaching of soil due to acid rain or industrial wastes, lead, which can be found in paint, car exhaust and water from lead pipes and solder, and arsenic, which can come into the environment through herbicides and wood preservatives, according to the International Council for Science.

“Metals will stay forever. They don’t break down, so if it gets into the stream, it’s there,” McArthur said.

For more information on McArthur’s and his team’s research, visit news.uga.edu or link.springer.com.

How to prevent it

Bacteria’s antibiotic resistance can be reversed, but the process would happen slowly, according to the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics.

Ways to help prevent the start and spread of the antibiotic resistance include getting regular vaccines against the bacteria, washing your hands especially when handling uncooked food and thoroughly cooking meat and poultry, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

NPS Medicinewise also advises knowing what conditions for which you would take antibiotics, and following the doctor’s instructions when taking the medication he or she has prescribed.

For more information, visit www.tufts.edu/med/apua, www.nps.org.au or www.cdc.gov.

Stephanie Turner graduated from Valdosta State University in 2012. She then signed on with the Aiken Standard, where she is now the features reporter.

She primarily covers health topics, arts and entertainment, authors and restaurants.