In September of 1928 the course of human history was changed, on accident, by a careless lab technician named Alex Fleming, who had just returned from vacation to discover that he had revolutionized the study of medicine. It was the birth of antibiotics. And although it would save countless lives across the Earth over the course of the next century, it would serve to hasten our own undoing. Which seems to be impending.
Last month a 49-year-old Pennsylvanian woman went to the hospital, where doctors discovered she was carrying a rare form of E. coli that was resistant to antibiotics. It was the superbug that medical experts have been dreading for years, and it is the first of its kind in the United States.
Normal E. coli can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, anemia, urinary tract infections and other infections – but it can be treated with antibiotics. The E. coli discovered in the urine of the Pennsylvanian woman, could not be treated with regular antibiotics. And that may spell the end of what was a very good era for medicine.
Antibiotics, while incredibly efficient at killing and inhibiting the growth of bacterial infections (and thereby saving lives), also facilitate adaptation at a much faster rate. This means that the bacteria we fight with antibiotics are forced to evolve faster in order to survive, and bacterial adaptation is very bad for humanity. But doctors keep frivolously prescribing antibiotics for every insignificant infection they come across, and farmers keep over-seeding their feed with antibiotics for their livestock. We are literally dumping antibiotics into the environment, fueling bacterial adaptation.
Before Fleming stumbled upon the Pandora’s box that was penicillin, infections were usually lethal, and severe diseases that are easily treatable today, like bacterial endocarditis, bacterial meningitis and pneumococcal pneumonia, were severe and killed people regularly. Surgeries we consider “routine” today, often failed, then. Successful childbirth rates were much lower. Generally, it was just a lot harder to keep people alive. And if bacteria start to evolve beyond our ability to fight them, we may be staring into a future full of death and infection.
Frighteningly, this incident with the woman in Pennsylvania is not the only instance of antibiotic resistant strains of E. coli manifesting. It is only the first discovered case in the US. Last November public health officials all over the world reacted with alarm when similarly resistant strains of E. coli were found in pigs, raw pork, and people. That same strain was later discovered in Europe.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Tom Friedman, was quoted in an interview saying:
“It basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics – that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive care units, or patients getting urinary-tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics.” He added, “I’ve been there for TB patients. I’ve cared for patients for whom there are no drugs left. It is a feeling of such horror and helplessness, this is not where we need to be.”
If that is truly the case, there is reason to fear the worst. Should a lethal bacterial infection, that has the ability to spread horrifyingly fast, adapts to become untreatable, then there is no quarantine policy on Earth that could save us. So what can be done?
That is a very important question for the medical professionals of this generation, and the next, to answer. A good policy would be to immediately decrease our use of antibiotics, sparing them for instances of real necessity. But that won’t happen, there is simply too much money being made from antibiotics in the pharma industry. And it’s probably too late anyway – 2 million Americans are already infected with antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. Annually, that kills around 23,000 people. That number, is conservatively expected to increase to 317,000 by 2050 – and that is only if a mass infection does not break out.
The benefits that antibiotics have lent humans are undeniable. Our medical abilities transformed, and became incredibly advanced in just a short period of time. Not to mention the amount of people antibiotics have been able to save over the years. But they are a crutch. And they helped the very enemies they were designed to fight, evolve to become super-powered and potentially unstoppable. Fleming’s wonderful discovery may have actually been a curse in disguise.
Sources: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/26/health/first-superbug-cre-case-in-us/index.html, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/05/26/the-superbug-that-doctors-have-been-dreading-just-reached-the-u-s/, http://observer.com/2015/11/the-end-of-the-antibiotic-era-what-you-need-to-know-about-bacterial-resistance/, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/dr-arjun-srinivasan-weve-reached-the-end-of-antibiotics-period/, http://www.healio.com/endocrinology/news/print/endocrine-today/%7B15afd2a1-2084-4ca6-a4e6-7185f5c4cfb0%7D/penicillin-an-accidental-discovery-changed-the-course-of-medicine, https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/antibiotics.html, http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/e-coli-infection-topic-overview