We Were Warned

Britain's Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, warned us a year and a half ago of a post-antibiotic era that would involve an "apocalyptic scenario."

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).

Sir Alexander Fleming, the guy who ushered in the antibiotic age, warned us right from the start not to become addicted to antibiotics.

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.

Let’s remember, these scientists and their organizations are notoriously cautious entities. For example, when the CDC Threat Report says that 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections, they emphasize that these are the “minimum numbers.”

Let’s end at the very beginning with the words of an internationally renowned scientist given in his Nobel Lecture: “But I would like to sound one note of warning … It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin … The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily … by exposing his microbes to … the drug make them resistant.”

These are the words of warning of none other than Sir Alexander Fleming, the scientist who discovered penicillin and who launched the antibiotic era.

The year was 1945.

So yes, we were warned.

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One Response to “We Were Warned”

  1. […] is the case with the landmark report released 5 weeks ago by the World Health Organization that warned us we’re entering a post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries will once […]

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