Will antibiotic resistance be the next global health crisis?Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are the cause of roughly 1.2 million deaths annually. It is estimated that, by the year 2050, the antibiotic resistance of bacteria, that is, their ability to defeat the drugs developed to kill them, may cause even more deaths than cancer. To avoid the imminent crisis, more research into the underlying reasons for the resistance is needed.
Writer: Katariina Pärnänen
Editing: Viestintätoimisto Jokiranta Oy
The increasing prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria makes the treatment of bacterial infections significantly more difficult. In the worst case scenario, millions of lives are at stake. It is estimated that, by the year 2050, antibiotic-resistant bacteria will cause more deaths than cancer.
Scientists speak of a crisis that is comparable to climate change and calls for the urgent raising of awareness worldwide. Despite the severity of the resistance crisis, we know very little about which factors, apart from the excessive use of antibiotic drugs, contribute to asymptomatic carriage of resistant bacteria or what long-term health risks there are in relation to resistant gut bacteria.
As a researcher, I’m interested in antibiotic resistance on a large scale: What are the effects of the global population growth and expanding middle class on the prevalence of antibiotic resistance? Can we, for example, assume that the problems caused by antibiotic resistance accumulate along with people living increasingly in densely populated areas and big cities? Is it possible for individuals to influence the spread of antibiotic resistance through their personal lifestyle choices? Are there diets that favour antibiotic resistance? If so, how could we raise awareness about these, in the same way as we already identify climate-friendly diets?
In our current research, we have access to data for stool samples collected from approx. 7,000 healthy Finnish adults in connection with the FINRISK cohort study in 2002. This enables us to investigate which health, lifestyle and socioeconomic factors are linked with antibiotic resistance in healthy adults. Based on the existing microbial samples, we can explore the composition and quantity of antibiotic resistance genes in human gut microbes, while also utilising the extensive background information collected for the subjects of the original study.
In addition, we have access to register-based health information. Through our research we seek to find those background factors that may expose one to a high resistance load. We may, for example, be able to identify dietary factors associated with a higher than expected quantity of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in asymptomatic carriers’ intestines. Further, we will examine if there is any regional variation within Finland in terms of resistance load, or whether the level of education or income are associated with the susceptibility to carry antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We will also analyse possible associations between a high resistance load and an increased risk of morbidity and mortality during the follow-up period of nearly 20 years for the cohort. On the basis of the results, it will be possible to identify key interventions to reduce the prevalence of resistance and thereby influence public health.
Katariina Pärnänen earned her PhD in Microbiology from the University of Helsinki. For her dissertation, she studied, among other things, the association of infant formula feeding with the quantity of antibiotic-resistant gut bacteria in newborn babies. Currently, Pärnänen is working as a post-doctoral researcher of the Academy of Finland at the University of Turku.