The Frightening Tale Of The Antibiotic Apocalypse

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Every time your doctor has prescribed you an antibiotic to treat an existing bacterial infection is a time you could have died of that infection. Maybe much less likely in some cases, more likely in others; but the risk is there. Now imagine that antibiotics stop working, especially for the really dangerous cases, and you and everyone you know has to face future infections with nothing better than hope, rest and tea.

Welcome to the antibiotics apocalypse.

Since it could actually happen, I'm going to rate an antibiotic apocalypse, worried over by the UK's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, as well as World Health Organisation head, Margaret Chan, as much scarier than a zombie apocalypse.

As Davies told the UK Parliament last month, "Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is both alarming and irreversible – similar to global warming ... Bacteria are adapting and finding ways to survive the effects of antibiotics, ultimately becoming resistant so they no longer work."

Why is this more alarming now? Two reasons, and both have to do with corporate greed. (You are shocked, I know.)

The first reason is that pharmaceutical companies have mostly stopped researching new antibiotics because they aren't very profitable. Which makes sense. Of course it's more profitable to come up with new antidepressants and boner pills than the next treatment for staph infection. How often do people get staph?

Well, more often these days, since staph is infecting more people now that it's developed antibiotic-resistant strains, thanks to modern pig farms. In a sane country, we could call for more public research spending to develop new antibiotics if the market won't pick up the slack, but that's just not likely to happen.

Hog confinement barn interior, courtesy EPA.govThough this takes us to the second reason for jumped-up antibiotic resistance, which is modern livestock practices for food animals of all types. Because it turns out that giving animals steady doses of antibiotics in their daily feed helps them put on weight faster, and it has the handy side effect of allowing them to survive incredibly filthy and overcrowded conditions where they're basically walking around ankle-deep in their own waste. (Mmm, bacon!)

The meat industry now consumes four-fifths of all antibiotics used in the US, or 29.9 billion pounds of antibiotics in 2011, nearly four times the amount prescribed for human illness. Last year, the FDA responded to this crisis by releasing voluntary guidelines for reducing antibiotic use in livestock and banning the non-prescription use in livestock of one class of antibiotics that the meat industry formerly used about 54,000 pounds of per year.

The livestock industry has no qualms against non-therapeutic overuse of even last resort antibiotics that are reserved to treat the most challenging human infections, and they'll do it remorselessly until the government steps in with a ban. And when you expose bacteria to (even very powerful) antibiotics on a routine basis, basic evolutionary biology tells us that any survivors will develop resistant populations, and basic evolutionary biology is right.

So there you have it. The outlines of an apocalypse, and one that might even peak before global warming can do its worst. I'd like to hear a Republican explain how this can be solved by cutting public health funding or decreasing government regulations and industry oversight -- but solely because the inevitable word salad would be the only funny thing about the situation.


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