I ran across this article a while back and found it truly frightening. I just read it again and it still gives me chills. The title alone — Imagining the Post-Antibiotic Future — gives me pause. Antibiotics have been around for my entire life. When I was 16, I had what I and my parents thought was a bad cold. It was during Christmas break from school, so I was just staying in bed, toughing it out and waiting to get better. It didn’t get better. It got much worse. I wound up in the emergency room on Christmas day with what turned out to be strep throat.
It was the sickest I have ever been. I went into that hospital feeling like I was dying. Just a few hours later, after a shot of penicillin in the ass and some pills to take home, I was feeling almost normal. My memories of that day — going from extreme sickness and fear to relative health so quickly — are still vivid 35 years later.
Without those antibiotics, I probably would have died. At 16. From a sore throat. The World Health Organization estimates that antimicrobials add 20 years to the average lifespan. It is difficult to imagine a world without them. But it appears that is where we are headed. The bugs are winning, becoming resistant to each new antibiotic faster than the last. And the drug companies are giving up.
With antibiotics losing usefulness so quickly — and thus not making back the estimated $1 billion per drug it costs to create them — the pharmaceutical industry lost enthusiasm for making more.
It’s your free market at work. There is a lot more profit to be made from drugs that people take for years instead of a few days. Sure, government could step in and provide some incentive for research, but that’s socialism, and would make the teabaggers cry.
It’s not just a matter of stocking up on hand sanitizer and living a cautious, clean life. The list of medical procedures that would have to be radically altered or even eliminated is daunting. Things like transplants and cancer treatment:
Many treatments require suppressing the immune system, to help destroy cancer or to keep a transplanted organ viable. That suppression makes people unusually vulnerable to infection. Antibiotics reduce the threat; without them, chemotherapy or radiation treatment would be as dangerous as the cancers they seek to cure.
And burn treatment:
And severe burns are hugely susceptible to infection. Burn units would have a very, very difficult task keeping people alive.
All sorts of what are now considered routine surgeries like biopsies, Caesarean births and artificial joint replacements may become life-or-death decisions.
Before antibiotics, five women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth. One out of nine people who got a skin infection died, even from something as simple as a scrape or an insect bite. Three out of ten people who contracted pneumonia died from it. Ear infections caused deafness; sore throats were followed by heart failure. In a post-antibiotic era, would you mess around with power tools? Let your kid climb a tree? Have another child?
Good questions, but as is my wont, I try to look for a silver lining. In this case, I think we may not have to worry about the Social Security funding shortage.