The day is coming when the host of antibiotics doctors currently use to fight off bacterial infections won’t work anymore, leaving the world’s population vulnerable to everything from scratches on your knee to disease, according to the United Nation‘s (UN)World Health Organization(WHO).
That’s because bacteria are becoming so resistant to common antibiotics that the phenomenon will bring about the “end of modern medicine as we know it,” warns Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO.
What that will mean for mankind, she says, is that – if current trends persist – today’s antibiotics will essentially become useless, and so much so that even routine operations won’t be possible. A cut could be fatal. More than that, however, breakthrough drugs to treat long-standing diseases like tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS would suddenly become ineffective.
Speaking to a conference of infectious disease experts in Copenhagen, Denmark, recently, Chan said it’s possible the world could be moving towards a “post-antibiotic era.” ”Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill,” she said. “Antimicrobial resistance is on the rise in Europe and elsewhere in the world. We are losing our first-line antimicrobials.”
An ‘evolving threat’
She said replacement medications for antibiotics would most likely take longer to heal and, naturally, would be more expensive. ”Replacement treatments are more costly, more toxic, need much longer durations of treatment, and may require treatment in intensive care units,” Chan noted. ”For patients infected with some drug-resistant pathogens, mortality has been shown to increase by around 50 per cent. A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it.”
Chan’s statement comes on the heels of a book published by the WHO detailing the potential crisis called The Evolving Threat of Antimicrobial Resistance which provides details on the coming “global crisis.” ”Bacteria which cause disease react to the antibiotics used as treatment by becoming resistant to them, sooner or later,” says an excerpt from the book. “A crisis has been building up over the decades, so that today many common and life-threatening infections are becoming difficult or even impossible to treat, sometimes turning a common infection into a life-threatening one.”
The biggest problem, WHO notes, is that antibiotics have been over-prescribed and used too long for years, and the result has been that bacteria are adapting to resist them. The book says an “inexorable increase in antimicrobial-resistant infections, a dearth of new antibiotics in the pipeline and little incentive for industry to invest in research and development had led to a need for innovation.”
The development and widespread prescribing of antibiotics in the early 1930s was a boon to modern medicine. Before they were invented, simple cuts and scrapes that became infected often led to serious illness and death. Since then, however – and especially within the past decade – doctors have regularly over-prescribed them, and often for the wrong reasons, say researchers. That has led to the current crisis. The phenomenon has led to the development, over time, of so-called “super bugs” – bacteria that cannot be beat down, even with the most powerful antibiotics.
“It is a worldwide issue – there are no boundaries,” said Prof. Peter Hawkey, a clinical microbiologist and chair of the British government’s antibiotic-resistance working group (Professor Peter Hawkey BSc, DSc, MBBS, MD, FRCPath. Professor of Public Health and Clinical Bacteriology, University of Birmingham, School of Immunity and Infection, College of Medical and Dental Sciences, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 [email protected]). “We have very good policies on the use of antibiotics in man and in animals in the UK. But we are not alone. We have to think globally.”
While the threat of known bacteria becoming resistant to current antibiotics, there is also a threat from bacteria that was previously unknown. Just last month, scientists found “ancient” bacteria in the Lechuguilla Cave in Carlsbad Cavern National Park in New Mexico, which has been cut off from any input from the surface for four million to seven million years.
How to fix the problem?
Dr. John Turnidge, Chairman of the Australian Expert Committee (John Turnidge, MB BS, FRACP, FRCPA. Clinical Professor of Paediatrics and Pathology, Affiliate Professor of Molecular and Biomedical Science, University of Adelaide, Adjunct Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical, Molecular and Biomedical Sciences, University of South Australia, Chief, Division of Laboratory Medicine, Children’s, Youth and Women’s Health Service, North Adelaide, South Australia. Division of Laboratory Medicine, Women’s and Children’s Hospital, 72 King William Rd, North Adelaide, South Australia, 5006, Email: [email protected]) which examined animal and human antimicrobial resistance, says human antibiotic usage can be halved, drug companies can stop trying to refine antibiotics used for animals to make them suitable for humans, and human and animal drug use can be kept separate.
Other experts say more aggressive development of new antibiotics is also necessary.
But the bottom line appears to be this: The medical system needs to stop over-prescribing these drugs, lest they force bacteria – which has survived on earth for millions of years – to continue to mutate in ways that become resistant to our ability to kill them.
Sources for this article include: