That’s all I need, another reason to cower at home in terror of the perils of the real world. Maryn McKenna imagines our Post-Antibiotic Future, that time when bacteria have more thoroughly evolved to resist our medicines — and you’ll be frightened after you read it, too.
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?
“Right now, if you want to be a sharp-looking hipster and get a tattoo, you’re not putting your life on the line,” says the CDC’s Bell. “Botox injections, liposuction, those become possibly life-threatening. Even driving to work: We rely on antibiotics to make a major accident something we can get through, as opposed to a death sentence.”
Bell’s prediction is a hypothesis for now—but infections that resist even powerful antibiotics have already entered everyday life. Dozens of college and pro athletes, most recently Lawrence Tynes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have lost playing time or entire seasons to infections with drug-resistant staph, MRSA. Girls who sought permanent-makeup tattoos have lost their eyebrows after getting infections. Last year, three members of a Maryland family — an elderly woman and two adult children — died of resistant pneumonia that took hold after simple cases of flu.
She does offer some slight hope for the future.
What might hold off the apocalypse, for a while, is more antibiotics—but first pharmaceutical companies will have to be lured back into a marketplace they already deemed unrewarding. The need for new compounds could force the federal government to create drug-development incentives: patent extensions, for instance, or changes in the requirements for clinical trials. But whenever drug research revives, achieving a new compound takes at least 10 years from concept to drugstore shelf. There will be no new drug to solve the problem soon—and given the relentlessness of bacterial evolution, none that can solve the problem forever. In the meantime, the medical industry is reviving the old-fashioned solution of rigorous hospital cleaning, and also trying new ideas: building automatic scrutiny of prescriptions into computerized medical records, and developing rapid tests to ensure the drugs aren’t prescribed when they are not needed. The threat of the end of antibiotics might even impel a reconsideration of phages, the individually brewed cocktails of viruses that were a mainstay of Soviet Union medical care during the Cold War. So far, the FDA has allowed them into the U.S. market only as food-safety preparations, not as treatments for infections.
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