A recent report issued by the World Health Organization reveals that antibiotic resistance is a major threat to public health.
Local health officials say it is important to be aware and take precautions, but people should not live in fear.
"It doesn't need to be a major scare," said James Clark, microbiology department manager at Alverno Central Laboratory in Hammond. "You can prevent the spread of anything you may be colonized with – of normal flora – by diligently washing your hands."
Antibiotics are medicines that fight bacterial infections by killing bacteria or preventing them from reproducing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They do not fight infections caused by viruses, including colds and the flu.
Taking antibiotics when a person is sick from a virus may do more harm than good, because each dosage increases the chance of the bacteria building a resistance.
People can spread an infection antibiotics cannot cure, according to the agency.
Bacteria and organisms can mutate and change genetic makeup to produce compounds to inactivate the antibiotics.
"Over time, they become more and more resistant to the variety of antibiotics," Clark said.
Resistance is a long-emerging trend.
"It's accelerating its spread and its incidence," he said. "In the early '80s and '70s, there was very little resistance to antibiotics."
Pharmaceutical companies are running out of ways to create new, stronger antibiotics. Bacteria are quick to figure out when an antibiotic has been modified, Clark said.
"The killer bugs have a much higher incidence in undeveloped countries where antibiotics are not controlled," Clark said. "In Mexico, you can walk into a drug store and tell them you have an infection and buy just about any antibiotic."
Several factors contribute to the growing problem.
The rising use of antibiotics by physicians who are possibly over-treating patients, hospital-acquired infections and agribusiness adding antibiotics worldwide to animal feed are main contributors, said Dr. Alex Stemer, president of Franciscan Medical Specialists.
The World Health Organization report suggests tracking and monitoring the problem, preventing infections in the first place through better hygiene, vaccination and infection control in health care facilities and developing new diagnostics, antibiotics and tools so health care workers can stay ahead of resistance.
In many parts of the world, there has not been antibiotic stewardship, which would restrict people from over-using antibiotics, Stemer said.
Stemer described Chicago and Lake County as "hot zones" for resistance.
"Bugs are geographically localized," he said.
Lake County has seen an emergence of CREs. CRE stands for carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae, a family of germs difficult to treat because of their high levels of antibiotic resistance, according to the CDC.
"CREs are almost untreatable bugs with high mortality rates," Stemer said. "We have to be very aware of this and attuned to this."
Almost all area hospital have adopted a strict antibiotic policy for better stewardship, Stemer said.
"Throughout almost all of Lake County, these efforts have been in place for over a decade," he said.
Resistance to one of the most commonly used antibiotics to treat urinary tract infections caused by E. coli is widespread.
Fluoroquinolones were first introduced in the 1980s and had virtually zero resistance, according to the World Health Organization. Now, there are countries across the globe where the treatment is ineffective in more than half of the patients, the group's report states.
“Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security for the World Health Organization.