Cover of Antibiotic Resistance: An Ecological Perspective on an Old Problem

Antibiotic resistance is never going to go away. No matter how many drugs we throw at it, no matter how much money and resources are sacrificed to wage a war on resistance, it will always prevail. Humans are forced to coexist with the fact of antibiotic resistance. Public health officials, clinicians, and scientists must find effective ways to cope with antibiotic resistant bacteria harmful to humans and animals and to control the development of new types of resistance.

The American Academy of Microbiology convened a colloquium October 12-14, 2008, to discuss antibiotic resistance and the factors that influence the development and spread of resistance. Participants, whose areas of expertise included medicine, microbiology, and public health, made specific recommendations for needed research, policy development, a surveillance network, and treatment guidelines. Antibiotic resistance issues specific to the developing world were discussed and recommendations for improvements were made.

Each antibiotic is injurious only to a certain segment of the microbial world, so for a given antibacterial there are some species of bacteria that are susceptible and others not. Bacterial species insusceptible to a particular drug are "naturally resistant." Species that were once sensitive but eventually became resistant to it are said to have "acquired resistance." It is important to note that "acquired resistance" affects a subset of strains in the entire species; that is why the prevalence of "acquired resistance" in a species is different according to location.Antibiotic resistance, the acquired ability of a pathogen to withstand an antibiotic that kills off its sensitive counterparts, originally arises from random mutations in existing genes or from intact genes that already serve a similar purpose. Exposure to antibiotics and other antimicrobial products, whether in the human body, in animals, or the environment, applies selective pressure that encourages resistance to emerge favoring both "naturally resistant" strains and strains which have "acquired resistance." Horizontal gene transfer, in which genetic information is passed between microbes, allows resistance determinants to spread within harmless environmental or commensal microorganisms and pathogens, thus creating a reservoir of resistance. Resistance is also spread by the replication of microbes that carry resistance genes, a process that produces genetically identical (or clonal) progeny.

Rapid diagnostic methods and surveillance are some of the most valuable tools in preventing the spread of resistance. Access to more rapid diagnostic tests that could determine the causative agent and antibiotic susceptibility of infections would inform better decision making with respect to antibiotic use, help slow the selection of resistant strains in clinical settings, and enable better disease surveillance. A rigorous surveillance network to track the evolution and spread of resistance is also needed and would probably result in significant savings in healthcare.

Developing countries face unique challenges when it comes to antibiotic resistance; chief among them may be the wide availability of antibiotics without a prescription and also counterfeit products of dubious quality. Lack of adequate hygiene, poor water quality, and failure to manage human waste also top the list. Recommendations for addressing the problems of widespread resistance in the developing world include: proposals for training and infrastructure capacity building; surveillance programs; greater access to susceptibility testing; government controls on import, manufacture and use; development and use of vaccines; and incentives for pharmaceutical companies to supply drugs to these countries.

Controlling antibiotic resistant bacteria and subsequent infections more efficiently necessitates the prudent and responsible use of antibiotics. It is mandatory to prevent the needless use of antibiotics (e.g., viral infections; unnecessary prolonged treatment) and to improve the rapid prescription of appropriate antibiotics to a patient. Delayed or inadequate prescriptions reduce the efficacy of treatment and favor the spread of the infection. Prudent use also applies to veterinary medicine. For example, antibiotics used as "growth promoters" have been banned in Europe and are subject to review in some other countries.

There are proven techniques for limiting the spread of resistance, including hand hygiene, but more rapid screening techniques are needed in order to effectively track and prevent spread in clinical settings. The spread of antibiotic resistance on farms and in veterinary hospitals may also be significant and should not be neglected. Research is needed to pursue alternative approaches, including vaccines, antisense therapy, public health initiatives, and others.

The important messages about antibiotic resistance are not getting across from scientists and infectious diseases specialists to prescribers, stakeholders, including the public, healthcare providers, and public officials. Innovative and effective communication initiatives are needed, as are carefully tailored messages for each of the stakeholder groups.


Jacques Acar, Julian Davies, Merry Buckley. 2009. Antibiotic resistance: an ecological perspective on an old problem.

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