From 1940 to today, the average life expectancy in the U.S. has increased from 63 years to 79 years. While the use of antibiotics is not exclusively responsible for this increase, they have certainly played a large part.
In the anthology of serendipitous scientific innovations, the discovery of antibiotics stands out. In the fall of 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming returned from vacation to find some of his Petri dishes contaminated with mold. Fortunately, Dr. Fleming didn’t just toss his moldy glassware. Instead, he examined the mess under a microscope and discovered that the mold, which turned out to be penicillin, had deterred the growth of Staphylococcus aureus (or “Staph”), a common bacteria responsible for skin infections, food poisoning, blood poisoning, and pneumonia. As with most pharmaceuticals, it took a while to translate discovery into availability but, by 1944, the New York Times reported that “penicillin in reach of all is pictured.”
In 1945 Fleming (along with several others) was awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin. During his Nobel acceptance speech, Fleming warned that the overuse of penicillin might lead to bacterial resistance. Fleming was not a seer - the pathway of antibiotic resistance is simple and predictable. Unfortunately, we are experiencing the truth of Fleming’s forecast.
Bacterial resistance is a prime example of evolution, and with the short life-cycle of germs, adaptation happens in the span of years rather than eons. In short, over-prescribing and misuse of antibiotics have allowed for survival of the fittest. Unaware of this potential, many patients demand antibiotics from their physicians, and a recent study found that over 30 percent of antibiotic prescriptions in the U.S. are unnecessary. If a patient is prescribed an antibiotic for a non-bacterial (viral) infection, the medication has no impact on the illness but does destroy some of the body’s bacteria.