Welcome to the post-antibiotic era

Use humans have had it good since penicillin was first discovered in 1928.  It, and the many other antibiotics that followed, provided us with a defense against bacteria infections which previously posed serious, sometimes fatal threats to our health.  Antibiotics also enabled new forms of treatment that would incredibly weaken our immune systems and otherwise leave us vulnerable to even the mildest infections.  Things like chemotheraphy, organ transplants, bone marrow transplants, for example.

The problem is evolution.  Bacteria have been adapting to our antibiotics faster than we’ve been able to invent new ones.  It’s hard to say exactly when we lost that battle…but there’s little doubt that we’re now in an era where we can not depend on antibiotics like we used to.  This is not to say that all infections will be fatal…but they’ll be much more serious than in the past.  PBS Frontline has a great article and TV spot talking about this (follow this link) and it’s definitely worth checking out.

High use of antibiotics in factory farms is not helping things…though they’re not the only culprit.  Antibiotics are ‘over prescribed’, given out like candy instead of held back for only serious cases.  In any case though, more cautious use of antibiotics is really only going to slow the evolution and just delay the inevitable.

So where do we go from here?  The antibiotic market has not been a very profitable one, historically, at least compared to the other pharmaceutical options.  If that changes, it might attract more R&D dollars which may lead to new antibiotic discoveries…but that’s wishful thinking.  The ‘last line of defense’ antibiotics are already very expensive…and as the problem grows worse, the number of patients willing to pay for a new option will sadly increase.  Developing a new antibiotic is just not something that can be expected to happen quickly…and the big unknown is how long it will be effective, before it too becomes ineffective against an ever-evolving threat.

It’s a long article over at PBS…but something that we should all read, this is a big change coming to our society and the only way we can expect to counter it is if people are informed and act.