The World Health Organization released a major report today that says we’re headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill
In real-world terms it goes like this. It will start with something as simple as a blister on the foot. Staphylococcus bacteria will infiltrate the open wound causing infection. The staph is of a kind that’s resistant to antibiotics (MRSA), so surgery is required to remove that part of the foot that’s infected. Nerves are permanently damaged leaving the patient in pain for the rest of their life. This isn’t a hypothetical case, it’s what Carl Nicks of pro football’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers is going through right now, and it has put his career in jeopardy.
The case of Mr. Nicks illustrates the most crucial point: medicine these days is wrapped around the ability to control infection by the use of antibiotics, without which much of what we do – and take for granted – gets put on hold.
For example, you’re restricted in your ability to treat cancer because the basic nature of cancer therapy is to knock out the immune response. So if you have no antibiotics to protect you, you’re left more susceptible to bacterial infection.
Surgery is impaired because antibiotics prevent patients from succumbing to bacteria. Thus the ability to do organ transplants, hip replacements, and so on is compromised.
Not to mention the inability to treat pneumonia; and the everyday, cuts and scratches that offer bacteria the chance to enter the body and cause an infection.
The inability to do all these things because antibiotics have been rendered useless is what is meant by a “post-antibiotic” era. And it will change the way we live.
So how did we get there? In a word – evolution: microbes such as the staphylococcus aureus bacterium have pressure put on them from the overuse of antibiotics drugs. The microbes respond to that by surviving and not being killed by these antibiotics so therefore they evolve in ways that make them resistant.
The WHO report says this threat of antibiotic resistance is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country … and the implications will be devastating.
Antibiotic resistance is the number one problem in global health. It’s a topic that has many related issues and is getting global media coverage today by outlets such as the BBC, CTV, the Guardian, and Salon.
We will spend the rest of the week digging deeper into the issue.