When I started out writing about science, 20 years ago, I tended to end my articles on an optimistic note, along the lines of: now the molecular structure of this problem is known, surely a solution will soon materialise. How little did I know.
One of the solvable problems I wrote about nearly 20 years ago – and I have an article published in September 1994 to prove it – is the spread of antibiotics resistance. Now the existence of antibiotics resistance traits is natural and there isn’t much we can do about it, but their spread is greatly facilitated by two human activities, namely the reckless use of antibiotics in agriculture, where they are essentially used to speed up growth, and their misguided use in human patients, including pointless prescriptions by doctors, and inappropriate application by patients.
All that was very well known and recognised in the 1990s, so it was deeply distressing for me to find out from a recent report into the problem that antibiotics are still misused in agriculture in the US, and from own experience I know that some doctors still prescribe antibiotics when they very clearly shouldn’t, e.g. for a common cold.
So, well, the problem we’re facing today is that there are hardly any new antibiotics in the development pipeline, and the old ones we have are being squandered through systematic and long-running misuse which should have stopped 20 years ago but for some strange reason hasn’t.
In the US alone, 23,000 people per year are dying from antibiotic-resistant bugs, and the bottom line is most of these deaths could have been avoided if antibiotics misuse had been stopped in time. And this will get worse. Infectious diseases which we’ve almost forgotten are returning because of this.
It’s a very very depressing subject, but if you can bear to read more about it, there is a new feature out in Current Biology today:
Antibiotics in crisis
Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 24, R1063-R1065, 16 December 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.11.057
Extended spectrum beta-lactamase-producing strains of Enterobacteriaceae, including Klebsiella species and E. coli, are responsible for around 1,700 deaths per year in the US. (Photo: courtesy of CDC http://www.cdc.gov)