The threat of resistant bacteria: when a simple foot blister can be deadly


There are two different versions of the facts. The first recounts that he slipped and his leg brushed the ground, while the second recounts how, being without socks, he developed a blister on his foot. Either of the two could be true, although the really important thing about the story is that that injury led to sepsis that ended the life of that 16-year-old, despite the efforts to save him from what were surely some of the best doctors of the time. They started with a significant disadvantage: there were still four years to go before Fleming discovered penicillin.

The microorganism that killed President Coolidge’s son was Staphylococcus aureus, a relatively common bacterium that only causes minor irritations and infections at the epidermal level. However, in the bloodstream, this staph can cause sepsis, which affects major organs and is potentially fatal. Currently, nobody or almost nobody dies from a simple rash, since the use of antibiotics greatly limits the harmful effects of this and other similar pathogens. But this story serves microbiologists to illustrate the not-too-distant future that humans may face again if they fail to curb the problem of resistant bacteria.

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El Gato con Botas: El último deseo“We can reach that scenario prior to penicillin. At the rate we are going, we still have a few decades left, but it is possible that we will get there,” José Ramos Vivas, professor of Microbiology at the European University of the Atlantic, assures that antibiotics “have worked so well for so many decades, that we have overused them, often like crazy.”

Antibiotic resistance is a public health problem that already causes some 3,500 daily deaths worldwide. And the nightmare has only just begun. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, by 2050 it could become a more common cause of death than cancer, with 10 million deaths per year.

Antibiotic abuse, the main cause
Resistance occurs when pathogens mutate and develop defenses against treatments, making drugs less effective and may not even treat mild infections. The abuse of antibiotics is the main cause, but it is not the only one, since there is a long list of environmental pressures that can favor the survival of bacteria, such as environmental pollution, global warming, new lifestyles, the globalization…

Although, as described by the microbiologist María del Mar Tomás, it is increasingly common to find these microorganisms outside of health settings, such as in the case of sexually transmitted diseases and gonococcus; or the pneumococcus present in community pneumonias.

Tomás explains that “we are running out of antibiotics”, and that to try to alleviate this problem, from the scientific field, there are currently three main lines of research: “The tendency is to try to make synergies between existing antibiotics; or to open new avenues such as viruses that infect bacteria, phages, in combination with antibiotics; or develop innovative molecular lines, always in combination with antibiotics”.

But if research is essential in this race against time against the strengthening of bacteria, there is an added drawback: the lack of interest on the part of large laboratories. “There are no incentives for pharmaceutical companies to invest in new medicines, because since it is not profitable for them, they dedicate themselves to

investigate other things”, explains José Ramos Vivas, and for this reason he asks the authorities to develop “more favorable legislation for pharmaceutical companies to investigate new antibiotics”.


Livestock, aquaculture and agriculture
“Outside, the next problem we would have would be the generation of resistant bacteria on animal farms for human food.

This scientific disseminator believes that such a complex problem should be addressed from a multiple perspective: “First, it is essential that pharmaceutical companies recover R&D programs in the search for new antibiotics.

“We also have to invest much more in the generation of vaccines against bacteria, because most of the vaccines we have are against viruses. And social education is also very important. “There are many fronts from which to attack the problem,” he sums up.

“Antibiotics are the most important medicines we have, and we should know them inside out and know how they work, when we have to take them and when we don’t have to take them,” recommends this microbiologist.

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