Robert Frost speculated poetically how the world might end, describing a dichotomy between fire and ice. I wonder if he would offer the same analysis if he was only considering the end of the human species. In his day, the issue of antibiotic resistance would never have been a consideration. Today, it is a problem that has the potential to decimate a great deal of life on our planet.
The human species may not be too far from the day when the power of antibiotics to kill organisms with the potential to kill us no longer work. It was not that long ago that humans feared a cut, or what we would now consider a minor infection. In the days before the discovery of penicillin, and what followed, a cowboy on the trail could end up dead after a few days of mending fence and sustaining cuts on his hands.
Today's miracle drugs are mostly taken for granted and that mindset is what has made many of them useless. Here is the official definition of antibiotic resistance from the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases: "Microbes are constantly evolving enabling them to efficiently adapt to new environments. Antimicrobial resistance is the ability of microbes to grow in the presence of a chemical (drug) that would normally kill them or limit their growth.
Antimicrobial resistance makes it harder to eliminate infections from the body as existing drugs become less effective. As a result, some infectious diseases are now more difficult to treat than they were just a few decades ago. As more microbes become resistant to antimicrobials, the protective value of these medicines is reduced. Overuse and misuse of antimicrobial medicines are among the factors that have contributed to the development of drug-resistant microbes."
Resistance is something that has happened because of inappropriate use of antibiotics. If you went to your doctor and demanded antibiotics for a cold or some viral illness then you, as well as the doctor who prescribed antibiotics for your illness, are guilty. This behavior happens all over the world and it has resulted in a large number of instances in which antibiotics used to be very effective but now no longer work.
A case in point is a new strain of gonorrhea that has developed in the U.K. A recent Reuters news story noted that, "Sixteen cases of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease, have been reported in the UK, leading the country's chief medical officer to warn of the rise of 'super-gonorrhea.'" The resistant strain hasn't appeared in the US so far, but there is growing resistance to one of the antibiotics used to treat the sexually transmitted disease. This week's warning from Dame Sally Davies, the UK's chief medical officer, followed a health alert concerning 16 cases in the north of England among heterosexuals. "Gonorrhea is at risk of becoming an untreatable disease due to the continuing emergence of antimicrobial resistance," she wrote in a letter to physicians and pharmacists, according to The Guardian.
Hospitals are already experiencing the difficulty of treating patients with multi-drug resistant infections and experts predict that it won't be too long before their arsenal no longer has what it takes. It may not be too late for humans to change their behavior in relation to the use of antibiotics but it will take a lot of public education and that is not happening.
Antibiotic resistance could turn out to be a bigger threat to us than terrorism and global warming. It could kill us off a lot quicker than fire or ice. A June 2015 story in the Atlantic sums up the problem well: "The overuse of antibiotics, both in human patients and, importantly, in livestock, has led to an explosion of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, both in the U.S. and around the world. Deaths from resistant infections are currently at about 700,000 per year, and estimated to rise to 10 million per year by 2050. If nothing changes, the World Health Organization predicts the future will look a lot like the past — where people die from minor injuries that become infected.
"The problem is so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine," the WHO wrote in a recent report.
We are long overdue for mass education and behavior changes before we find out first-hand how people died on the American frontier.