Imagine prescribing steroids to people so we could build stronger antibiotic-resistant germs – “superbugs” – that grow and reproduce quicker than they otherwise would. Ridiculous, right?
Well, a study reported this week in the American Academy for the Advancement of Science tells us that’s exactly what we’re doing when we take antibiotics, i.e. they have a pronounced steroid-like effect, not on us, but on the bad bugs we harbor.
In the study, researchers exposed E. coli bacteria to 8 rounds of doxycycline treatment over four days and found that the bug – which can cause severe stomach pain, diarrhea and kidney failure in humans – had “increased antibiotic resistance with each treatment.” The E. coli also “reproduced faster than before encountering the drugs and formed populations that were three times larger [and] … [t]his was only seen in bacteria exposed to antibiotics.”
Therefore, say the researchers,”[b]acteria have a remarkable ability to rearrange their DNA and this can stop drugs working, sometimes in a matter of days” (my emphasis). And further: “It’s often said that Darwinian evolution is slow, but nothing could be further from the truth, particularly when bacteria are exposed to antibiotics.”
In fact, we can now literally watch this rapid evolution and spread of mutant superbugs thanks to a first-of-its-kind video produced by Harvard scientists that went viral on YouTube with some 25 million views. Here it is, with a nice voice-over explanation:
Here’s the takeaway. No one disputes that antibiotics are necessary and even lifesaving – but only when appropriately prescribed by a physician. The inconvenient truth, however, is that we horribly misuse and overuse them. For example, antibiotics cannot cure the common cold, are almost never needed for bronchitis, are not recommended to treat many ear infections, and are typically not needed to treat a sinus infection (sinusitis).
As Roy Kishony, one of the Harvard scientists involved in the video reminded us in an interview with STAT last December, “Every single antibiotic that has been introduced medically so far, bacteria found ways to evade it … every single one.”
So why help out the bugs even further by giving them “steroids”?