Overuse of antibiotics doesn’t cure, but kills

December is here. So is winter. Almost every other person falls prey to cold and flu. The only way to deal with these viral infections, we generally believe, is to resort to antibiotics. Many of us don’t even bother to consult the doctor before approaching a pharmacy. These pharmacists rarely bother to inform us that antibiotics are used to treat infections caused by bacteria and they don’t work against infections caused by viruses, that include cold and flu. Such misuse and overuse of these kind of medicines have helped a growing number of bacteria become resistant to most or all antibiotics — a phenomenon doctors are calling a crisis as there are no alternative in sight for these drugs. However, patients, doctors and pharmacists are not the only ones to be blamed for the worsening human health conditions. In fact, they are just small players.

The inaction and indifference of governments, private corporations and powerful individuals should more be blamed for not stalling a post-antibiotic apocalypse. Antibiotics, for example, are being liberally used for decades to promote the health of farm animals meant for our food. The environmental contamination by the ubiquitous drugs have led to so-called superbugs like MRSA and VRE that have developed resistance to their effects. Had India, like its Western counterparts, set regulations for antibiotic use in poultry, drugmakers such as Zoetis would not have been able to serve illnesses on our plates. After all, more than 70 per cent of Indians are non-vegetarians.

As per a 2016 PLOS Medicine paper, 416 of every 100,000 Indians die of infectious diseases each year. This is more than twice the crude infectious-disease mortality rate in the US in the 1940s when antibiotics were first used there. If these miracle drugs stop working, India will be the hardest hit.

Globally, drug-resistant infections are predicted to the reason for an estimated 2.4 million deaths in developed countries alone by 2050. Sadly, the pharmaceutical industry, in general, is not much interested in investing time and money in researching for new antibiotics as the drug discovery of any kind is inordinately expensive. Majority of the drugmakers are not ready to block billions of rupees for research and development of an antibiotic that can cure an infection in five to 10 days. The same fund and resources, according to them, could be better utilised on medications for conditions like high cholesterol or blood pressure, which are typically taken for life. Moreover, a new antibiotic may have a limited shelf life as the bugs it treats may develop resistance.

The Central government must intervene to halt the death toll from the misuse of antibiotics, which is growing at an alarming rate. Around 58,000 infants, according to a 2013 estimate, die across the country each year due to sepsis from resistant bacteria. If the policymakers continue to delay the formulation of regulations on the use of antibiotics, the health of common people would remain at grave risk. Unlike Drugs and Cosmetics Rules 1945, the new laws should be strictly implemented to curb the overuse of antibiotics by human beings; its misuse in the veterinary sector; and environmental antibiotic contamination due to pharma and hospital discharge. Else, India will have no one to blame but itself.