March 16, 2012
What would the world look like if an injury from a minor infection could kill you? Where bacterial illnesses like strep had no treatment? Where the risk of infection made it too dangerous for simple, routine surgeries such as hip replacements? Where the risk of infection would be great enough to render chemotherapy useless?
According to Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization, this could soon be reality. At a meeting with infection disease experts in Copenhagen, she stated simply that every antibiotic in the arsenal of modern medicine may soon become useless due to the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases. The Independent quoted her explaining the ramifications:
“A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”
She continued: “Antimicrobial resistance is on the rise in Europe, and elsewhere in the world. We are losing our first-line antimicrobials.
“Replacement treatments are more costly, more toxic, need much longer durations of treatment, and may require treatment in intensive care units.
“For patients infected with some drug-resistant pathogens, mortality has been shown to increase by around 50 per cent.
“Some sophisticated interventions, like hip replacements, organ transplants, cancer chemotherapy, and care of preterm infants, would become far more difficult or even too dangerous to undertake.”
Around the world, more and more pathogens are spreading which don’t respond to any known antibiotic drugs. In India, there has been a recent outbreak of drug-resistant TB. And in the US, the CDC warns that a new strain of gonorrhea is on the rise – and it is resistant to most forms of antibiotics. The agency warns that it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing outbreaks of untreatable STIs. (And the fact that sex education in the US rarely warns teens how to adequately protect themselves from STIs probably won’t help.)
So why is this happening? There are a couple of troubling reasons – the first that Chan points to is the heavy use of antibiotics in livestock. In the US, a full 80% of the country’s antibiotics go to farm animals, not human beings. And the FDA has done little to discourage this. The only solution here is to go vegetarian/vegan, or start paying more for organic (not “natural”) meat, eggs, and dairy that have never been exposed to antibiotics.
The other reason is just depressing: there’s no money to be made, apparently, in developing new antibiotics. Chan says:
“In terms of new replacement antibiotics, the pipeline is virtually dry. The cupboard is nearly bare.
“From an industry perspective, why invest considerable sums of money to develop a new antimicrobial when irrational use will accelerate its ineffectiveness before the investment can be recouped?”
She called for measures to tackle the threat by doctors prescribing antibiotics appropriately, patients following their treatment and restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animals.
But she said attention was “still sporadic” and actions “inadequate”.
“At a time of multiple calamities in the world, we cannot allow the loss of essential antimicrobials, essential cures for many millions of people, to become the next global crisis,” she said.