Vaccines Play Key Role in Curbing Antimicrobial Resistance

BIOtech Now
Daniel Seaton

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the greatest public health threats facing the global community – by 2050, antibiotic resistant bacteria are projected to kill 10 million people a year, more than the current death toll from all types of cancer combined. Even today, antibiotic resistance infections are thought to kill 50,000 people in the U.S. and Europe.

Earlier this summer, BIO released a white paper outlining policies that will help us better combat the threat of AMR by adding new tools to our arsenal to better identify, treat and prevent AMR infections.

While public attention has often focused on the need for developing new antibiotics, another medical intervention also plays a key role in fighting AMR – vaccines. Alice Callahan at FiveThirtyEight recently highlighted the utility of vaccines in both preventing resistant infections and in slowing the development of new resistant bacterial strains in her article, The Fight Against Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Might Start With Vaccines.

As the article notes, vaccine-hesitant parents who see vaccines as unnecessary put their children at greater risk of bacterial infections, leading to far more dire consequences than the feared side-effects of vaccines:

Dr. Joel Amundson, a pediatrician in Portland, Oregon, finds himself frequently talking about vaccines and antibiotics in the same breath. Oregon has one of the lowest immunization rates in the nation, and Amundson said many of the parents he counsels want to keep their kids “all-natural” and see vaccines as an unnecessary medical intervention. But when he explains that vaccines are a tool for decreasing medical interventions, including antibiotic use, that often changes their perspective. “That’s a huge benefit to my families,” he said, “It definitely has them more interested in doing vaccines when they understand that.”

Some parents who are reluctant to vaccinate worry about side effects, and though some kids will experience short-lived, minor reactions such as swelling at the injection site, serious side effects are extremely rareSide effects from antibiotics, including diarrhea, rashes and allergic reactions, are generally more common and severe, Amundson said. “I see far more harm from antibiotics than I do from vaccines, by a huge margin. It’s not subtle,” he said.

The more often antibiotics need to be administered, the fewer chances bacteria will have to develop resistance – making the prevention of bacterial infections a key pillar of slowing AMR. And because viral infections are often mistaken as bacterial ones – leading to the inappropriate use of antibiotics – cutting down on vaccine-preventable viral infections will also help to curb AMR.

The introduction of pneumococcal vaccines demonstrates the big impact that vaccines can have in reducing our dependence on antibiotics:

Pneumococcal vaccines have also reduced our dependence on antibiotics. The first was recommended in the U.S. for infants and young children in 2000, followed in 2010 by an updated version covering more strains of the bug. Like Hib, pneumococcus bacteria can cause pneumonia and invasive blood and brain infections, but it’s also a major cause of ear infections, which are one of the biggest reasons that children are prescribed antibiotics. Before the vaccine was added to the infant immunization schedule, up to 40 percent of invasive pneumococcal infections — meaning infections that spread to parts of the body, such as the bloodstream, that are normally germ-free — were resistant to at least one antibiotic, making them more difficult and costly to treat. The first pneumococcus vaccine decreased antibiotic-resistant invasive pneumococcal infections in young children by 81 percent, and the second vaccine caused an additional 61 percent drop. (These studies looked at different age groups, however; the first included only children younger than 2, and the second looked at children up to age 4.)

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