Since the dawn of time, humans have been trying to figure out how the world will end. Doomsday bulletins remind us every year how close we are to annihilating ourselves. But while nukes, dictators, and global warming get a lot of press, one of our greatest existential threats often goes unmentioned.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been called one of the greatest threats humanity has ever faced. These bacteria have built up resistance to the antibiotics we’ve developed over the last 70 years. And they’re getting stronger. Yet most people fear shark attacks and plane crashes, which are statistically unlikely to kill you, far more.
The reality is that antibiotic-resistant bacteria aren’t in the news because the majority of these strains aren’t super deadly…yet. However, experts fear that bacterial infections we can easily cure today with antibiotics (like gonorrhea or strep throat) will soon become a death sentence. If any bacteria becomes resistant to our best antibiotics, recovery becomes a serious challenge.
Perhaps even more frightening, something as simple as a cut or a scrape could become infected and prove deadly.
William P. Hanage, an epidemiologist specializing in infectious disease at Harvard University, said it best: “We’re seeing more drug-resistant infections. And people will die.”
Understanding the roots of antibiotics
Antibiotic treatment has existed since ancient times. In Sri Lanka, they relied on “sweetmeat” as an antibacterial treatment to treat wartime injuries.
But it wasn’t until the 1920’s that a scientist named Alexander Fleming stumbled across a powerful preventive measure for some of the worst afflictions known to humanity. While in the lab, Fleming found that a “mold juice” he produced was lethal to bacteria. This mold juice was called penicillin, and it changed the face of the pharmaceutical industry. If you’ve ever taken a amoxicillin or azithromycin (z-pack), you can thank Mr. Fleming.
Antibiotics like penicillin are great. The problem is that we don’t always use them the right way.
How we messed up and promoted antibiotic-resistant bacteria
Antibiotics kill bacteria. The problem is that sometimes they only kill 99.9% of them. The remaining 0.1% is, for whatever reason, resistant to the antibiotic. And that 0.1% will reproduce asexually until they become a serious problem.
Why do bacteria become resistant to antibiotics? Because we often don’t use antibiotics correctly:
- Not taking the right dosage. If a z-pack requires you to take 5 doses, and you feel better after the third one and decide to throw the rest out, you’re running the risk of developing an antibiotic-resistant strain. Antibiotics need to be taken in the right dosages and at the right time. Otherwise, they won’t always work as intended.
- Using old/improper antibiotics: If you have some azithromycin lying around, toss it out. Taking old antibiotics can have the same effect as taking the wrong dosage. You can always get a prescription for a new one.
- Overprescription: Antibiotics are overprescribed, given either as a precautionary measure or when an ailment is misunderstood. When people take who don’t need antibiotics take them, they aren’t as effective.
These types of simple, seemingly inconsequential oversights resulted in one of the most shocking cases of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in history this past July.
Antibacterial-resistant “superbug” found in NYC
In July 2016, a sample of MCR (a strain of E. Coli) was found in the stomach of a patient in New York City. Colistin is the most common antibiotic used to treat E. Coli, but it doesn’t work on MCR.
In short, a bacteria that the pharmaceutical industry decimates by the trillions on a daily basis has wised up to our methods. It’s become a superbug, and we can’t kill it. Even worse, scientists predict MCR is going to continue to spread around the world and become a routine infection that we have no way to combat.
Thankfully, MCR isn’t usually fatal. But if you consider all the bacteria that do fit that criteria, MCR represents something much more terrifying. Simple procedures like routine surgery could put people’s lives at jeopardy.
So how can you fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria if antibiotics don’t work?
Fighting off the antibiotic-resistant apocalypse
For starters, take care of your personal hygiene (and remind others to do the same). Bad bacteria gets passed on because of unhealthy habits. So wash your hands, don’t go into work if you’re sick, and stay vaccinated.
Most importantly, take antibiotics exactly the way your doctor recommends (not just when you’re feeling sick).
Scientists are working with the pharmaceutical industry to find alternate methods of treating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. For instance, promising clinical trials are taking us one step closer to finding alternate ways to combat gonorrhea.