Scientists warn of world without antibiotics
For over 50 years we have depended on them to keep us healthy. Now experts tell us our misuse of antibiotics means they are no longer working. It’s very serious, but is there a remedy?
A scratched knee could kill. Worried parents would forbid their children to climb trees or run around, fearing even the slightest injury. Even a simple medical operation might be more dangerous than the problem it is supposed to solve.
This is what the future could look like if common bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. According to a chilling new report from WHO, this is not just ‘an apocalyptic fantasy’, but ‘a very real possibility for the 21st century.’ It says that in every part of the world bacteria are rapidly outpacing our ability to control them, leaving modern medicine impotent.
David Cameron this week called it an ‘extremely serious problem with unbelievably bad consequences.’ Britain’s chief medical officer agreed, adding that we are returning to the 19th century when everyday infections were killers. Some experts say we are facing a bigger crisis than the 1980s AIDS epidemic.
Antibiotics have saved tens of millions of lives since Alexander Fleming discovered the first, penicillin, in 1928. But Fleming warned that if they were misused, bacteria would soon evolve to beat them.
The world did not listen. Bacteria became resistant to basic antibiotics like penicillin, so we began using stronger ones which soon became useless too. An incredible 50% of all antibiotics are used on farms to help animals grow fatter faster, but they also help bacteria to become stronger.
Today in the US standard antibiotics for infected wounds do not work in half of all cases. In Europe, 25,000 people a year die from infections that are resistant to ‘drugs of last resort’. And now new ‘superbugs’are appearing that we are powerless to control.
Most worryingly, there are only four pharmaceutical companies currently working on new antibiotics. Most have not invested in developing alternatives while existing antibiotics worked. But now some infections are stronger than any of our treatments.
WHO says the world must start using antibiotics responsibly and find alternatives before we render our medicine useless. Are we already too late?
Beating the bugs
Medical experts agree that antibiotic resistance is a global crisis and can only be solved with global action. But some ask if the world is failing to tackle global warming and poverty, what hope is there of organising ourselves in this case?
Yet others say the WHO report has finally alerted the world to how serious this problem is. Controls in Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands have rapidly slowed the spread of resistance, giving other countries an example to follow. Farms must stop making use of antibiotics, and if everyone else starts using them responsibly and only when necessary, we may avert disaster.
- Is averting resistance to antibiotics as important as preventing global warming and solving poverty?
- ‘Countries should suffer international trade sanctions if they do not control their antibiotics use.’ Do you agree?
- In groups, research the development of antibiotics and the rise of resistant bacteria and make a presentation.
- Creative writing: imagine you are person living in the future when antibiotics no longer work. Write a diary entry which shows how your life might be affected.
Some People Say...
“Of all the potential disasters facing humankind, antibiotic resistant bacteria is the worst.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- But I rarely get ill, so this doesn’t matter to me.
- It is great to be healthy, but it is very rare for a person never to need antibiotics at some point in their life. Without antibiotics, many of today’s common operations would become too risky because of the threat of infection. Experts say that even something as routine as a hip replacement could carry a one in six chance of death.
- So who are the main offenders?
- The US has come under criticism for prescribing antibiotics too liberally, as has much of the developing world. However, every country has a problem: at least ten countries, including the UK, Japan and Sweden, have reported finding untreatable strains of gonorrhoea.
- The World Health Organisation is the public health arm of the United Nations. It works with governments all over the world to advise on health issues and assist in the fight against diseases and malnutrition.
- Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome broke out in the 1980s. Millions across the world became infected before the disease was properly understood, at a time when there was no treatment.
- There is always a chance an infection will mutate into an antibiotic resistant form. However, this is much less likely if a whole course of antibiotics is followed and all the bacteria are killed. Antibiotics should also only be used when appropriate.
- An example is MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, which is 64% more likely to kill patients than its non-resistant form. This bacteria kills almost 20,000 people a year in Europe.
- One estimate puts the cost of developing a new antibiotic at $1bn, which is why many pharmaceutical companies have been slow to develop any new ones.