“Polio?”, you say. “That terrible affliction that paralyzed thousands of American children each year? But polio was eradicated by the development of the Salk vaccine.” Yes, but a vaccine can only work if the shot is delivered. In war-torn Syria, some children aren’t receiving their vaccinations — and the polio virus is still out there, lurking and ready to spread its infection that, for some unlucky few, will produce paralysis.
The story of the Syrian children is a reminder of the thin line of defense that protects humans from illness caused by bacteria, microbe, and virus. It’s a timely reminder, too, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other world health organizations are increasingly concerned about the development of “superbugs” — bacteria that have developed resistance to treatment because antibiotics are being overused. The CDC estimates that more than 2 million Americans get antibiotic-resistant infections each year, and at least 23,000 die because drugs no longer stop their infections from spreading. The two most dangerous “superbugs” in America are CRE bacteria, which produce deadly, raging infections, and Clostridium difficile, which produces diarrhea that kills thousands each year. The CDC’s European health counterpart is reporting on outbreaks of other antibiotic-resistant illnesses in some European countries.
This is one of those stories that don’t get much attention because it isn’t threatening to most of us — at least, not right now. But the spread of “superbugs,” and the overuse of antibiotics that often kill “good” bacteria that are found in every human, are an enormously important public health issue. We need to stop the overuse of antibiotics that have contributed to the development of drug-resistant bacteria and focus on developing new vaccines and forms of treatment to fight the superbugs. Otherwise, one day we might wake up to find that the stout antibiotic line of defense that has protected humans from all manner of deadly diseases is simply gone.