We have now been officially warned by the World Health Organization of a coming post-antibiotic era where our ability to perform surgery and treat cancer is severely compromised, and where common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.
But how is the average person supposed to evaluate such a claim? Is it to be believed in whole or in part or is it hyperbole? After all, we live in an Age of Suspicion where the pathology of politics distorts even the sciences, from the debate on man-made climate change to whether human genes can be patented, thus turning them into private property and vehicles for corporate profit.
One way to evaluate the WHO claim of a coming post-antibiotic era is to understand that they’re not saying anything new; rather, they have merely – and finally – put their seal of approval to a position that has been staked out for years by leading scientists around the world.
For example, Britain’s most senior medical adviser, Dame Sally Davies, has warned that the rise in drug-resistant diseases could trigger a national emergency comparable to a catastrophic terrorist attack, pandemic flu or major coastal flooding. She said the threat from infections that are resistant to frontline antibiotics is so serious that the issue should be added to the government’s national risk register of civil emergencies. She describes what she calls an “apocalyptic scenario” where people going for simple operations die of routine infections “because we have run out of antibiotics.” And she has been saying this since at least January, 2013.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention issued Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013, a first-ever snapshot of the burden and threats posed by the antibiotic-resistant germs having the most impact on human health. The report begins with these introductory remarks: “Antibiotic resistance is a worldwide problem. New forms of antibiotic resistance can cross international boundaries and spread between continents with ease. Many forms of resistance spread with remarkable speed. World health leaders have described antibiotic resistant microorganisms as ‘nightmare bacteria’ that ‘pose a catastrophic threat’ to people in every country in the world.”
In Canada, the Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health, 2013, called infectious disease, “the never-ending threat,” noting that more than 200,000 patients get infections every year while receiving healthcare in Canada; more than 8,000 of these patients die as a result, and that these numbers are rising. For example, the healthcare-associated MRSA rate increased more than 1,000% from 1995 to 2009 (the last year for which numbers are available).
Canadian scientists are even more pointed. For example, Dr. Bob Hancock, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Microbiology at the University of British Columbia, in an interview this March on the CBC science program Quirks and Quarks, was asked by the host what he thought the odds are of facing a worst-case scenario of a life “beyond antibiotics.” His reply: “I would say right now, unless something changes it looks inevitable.”
The year was 1945.
So yes, we were warned.