Antibiotics crisis: the end of modern medicine?

One of the biggest problems modern medicine would face is the lack of effective antibiotics. But, antibiotics? Really? You may think that this is a problem solved a long time ago, and since the invention of Penicillin we’re all safe! But unfortunately, this is far from true.

What are antibiotics and where they come from?

Alexander Fleming, the famous Scottish scientist discovered the first antibiotic, Penicillin, through a very fortunate accident. It was in part thanks to the fact that its laboratory was very often untidy. One day he by 1927, he was investigating properties of staphylococci. He went in holidays with his family that summer, and before leaving he stacked his cultures on a bench in the corner of his lab.

When he came back, he found that one of the cultives was contaminated with a fungus, and a very strange thing happened: where the fungus grew, the cultive was eradicated! “That’s funny”, was his first thought… After some research he was able to isolate the penicillin from the fungus, and the first antibiotic was discovered. And even at that time, he was very aware of the problems related to its overuse: he warned that the “public will demand… then will begin an era of abuses.”.

Since the introduction of Penicillin many other antibiotics were identified, and during the years lots of new antibiotic resistant strains appeared. So we keep discovering new ones to fight the bacterias.

Bacteria evolves

Here’s the deal: bacteria reproduce, grow and in consequence evolve at a very accelerated peace. Their evolutive process allow them to adapt to many environmental threats, like antibiotics. When a big amount of antibiotics is used for specific organisms (in other words, the usage of the antibiotic is abused) the surviving bacterias take control over the remaining fertile field. Those surviving bacteria grow in population creating a new strain resistance to that specific antibiotic.

Where’s the problem? Well… First of all the most important threat is to run out of solutions: we won’t always able to find a new antibiotic every time a new strain appears, and this would be very problematic. Most of the modern medicine relay on antibiotics, they’re mandatory for surgery, transplants, prevent infections in immunodepressed and chemotherapy treated patients, cardiac surgery, diabetes, infections… The list is very long, but basically we would return to the dark pre-antibiotic era, when people died from today most easily treatable diseases.

Are we abusing?

Yes, we are. First of all there’s an inappropriate prescribing: agents and duration of antibiotic therapy prescribed by physicians is often unnecessary. That’s not because they are bad doctors, it’s because they want to be sure that the problem is not caused by a bacterial infection, and in that case they want to be sure that the infection to be eradicated. It makes sense, but there’s a lack of conscience about this big problem in our society, as you can see in the antibiotics timeline.

Another cause is the extensive agricultural use. Since the livestock conditions today are not very hygienic, animals used to get sick. The problem is that in order to have the maximum performance on the minimum land, the industry put livestock in a very overpopulated and unhealthy conditions. The solution? Antibiotics. A big dose of antibiotics is administrated to the animals since their childhood in order to promote growth and prevent infections. Up to 90% of those antibiotics are excreted in urine and stool, and spread in the environment.

The risk of running out of antibiotics is not only there, but also the research is threatened. When a new drug is created, the company needs to recover the investment through sales. However antibiotics, because of their short life-span (every year shorter) and their increasing research cost could become really expensive or not profitable at all for companies in the future.

What can we do?

So the risk is there, what can we do? Well, first of all avoid overusing. The usage should be limited to infections that the body can’t fight or cases when we are sure that the source of the illness is an infection. This what the antibiotics crisys is all about, and it’s a very serious problem. If we run out of antibiotics we would return to the pre-antibiotic era, wher people used to die for illnesses that today we consider harmless. It would be the end of the modern medicine.

What do you think? Were you aware of this problem? Leave a comment and share!

antibiotics_resistance_over_time

Source: US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

BONUS! Documentary: The Rise Of Superbugs

N. Gentile

Software engineer, science lover. Collaborated in several European Space Agency (ESA) projects and European Commission scientific R&D projects mainly related to earth observation. Currently working in video-game behaviour forecasts for one of the most influential companies of the industry.

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