When Wonder Drugs Don't Work

2001 report discusses what antibiotic resistance is and why it matters

For the last 60 years, most of us have become accustomed to taking antibiotics, or "wonder drugs," to treat a wide range of bacterial infections from pneumonia and strep throat to meningitis and food poisoning — and we expect to get better. Indeed, antibiotic drugs have turned bacterial infections into treatable conditions rather than the life-threatening scourges they once were. Today, however, more and more bacterial infections fail to respond to antibiotic treatment. So worrisome is this trend that a federal task force recently called antibiotic resistance "a growing menace to all people" and warned that if nothing is done, treatments for common infections will become "increasingly limited and expensive — and, in some cases, nonexistent.

A 2001 report titled When Wonder Drugs Don't Work [PDF], released December 12 by Environmental Defense, explains the how's and why's of antibiotic resistance and focuses on why it poses a particular threat to three very vulnerable groups: children, the elderly, and persons with medical conditions that impair their ability to fight disease or that make them especially prone to bacterial infections.

The report, authored by Environmental Defense attorney Karen Florini with two physicians, also addresses the serious overuse of antibiotics in agriculture (mostly in food animals such as cattle, pigs and poultry) and offers compelling evidence that their inappropriate use could render "wonder drugs" like penicillin and tetracycline useless in treating infections.

One note of optimism: according to research in Finland and Denmark, it appears that resistant bacteria become less prevalent if the use of antibiotics is reduced, at least in some instances — all the more reason for business, government and individuals to take strong action to decrease inappropriate antibiotic use. "Unless we act now," says Florini, "we face a future of untreatable bacterial infections. Children, seniors, and those with weaker immune systems will pay with their health, if not their lives."

Download the report

PDF When Wonder Drugs Don't Work Adobe Reader [PDF] (566 kb)

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