In Praise of Vaccines: They also help fight the spread of antibiotic resistance

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We knew vaccines were good stuff. For example, according to a 2014 editorial in Science, “Vaccines are one of the safest and most cost-effective medical interventions in history. By immunizing infants, children, and teenagers, vaccines protect the entire community.”

And then just a few weeks ago we learned of yet another benefit. According to the World Health Organization vaccines can help fight the spread of antibiotic resistance, which the United Nations just called “the greatest and most urgent global risk.”

For example, as we enter the height of cold and flu season — December through March — the WHO says that vaccines not only protect us from those ills, they can also confer an added health benefit: “Vaccines against viruses, such as the flu, also have a role to play, because people often take antibiotics unnecessarily when they have symptoms such as fever that can be caused by a virus.”

The unnecessary use of antibiotics – i.e. overuse (e.g. in our food animals) and misuse (e.g. they don’t work on colds) – drives the resistance problem. Therefore, according to the WHO, “Vaccinating humans and animals is a very effective way to stop them from getting infected and thereby preventing the need for antibiotics.”

We tend to overlook the massive dosing of our food animals with antibiotics. One reason we give healthy animals antibiotics is to prevent them from getting sick — but you should no more give a healthy animal an antibiotic than you should a healthy person. As we noted this past April, the problem is vast:

“Over 8 tons of antibiotics are fed every year to the more than 8 billion food animals in the US alone, resulting in a ‘massive selection’ for resistant bacteria, writes Stuart Levy, MD, in his book The Antibiotic Paradox: How the misuse of antibiotics destroys their curative powers. With the upshot, Levy says, that resistant bacteria will develop in an animal within 2 – 3 days; from there it will spread to the other animals, then to the farm workers and their families, continuing outward to nearby communities, states, and even globally.”

Finally, the WHO also recommends expanding the use of existing vaccines in people. For example, they say that “if every child in the world received a vaccine to protect them from infection with Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria (which can cause pneumonia, meningitis and middle ear infections), this would prevent an estimated 11 million days of antibiotic use each year.”

As we begin to tap in to this potential for vaccines — which includes the development of new ones — perhaps it will also help prevent one of the more dire scenarios that worries leading health authorities: that by the year 2050 antibiotic resistant disease will kill more people each  year than cancer.

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