Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how fragile we are. War, climate change, famine, and disease, we as a species are susceptible to death in millions of ways. Thankfully the human race has come a long way and we have developed great tools to help keep us alive and healthy, however one of our greatest weapons of defense against disease is about to expire.
The BBC reports today that scientists in China have found a new type of superbug, immune to the strongest antibiotics. The mutation is a new gene called MCR-1 and was found in 16 patients and about 15 percent of the samples of raw meat. The Chinese government is moving swiftly to address the situation, however it is already thought to have spread to Laos and Malaysia. Prof Timothy Walsh from the University of Cardiff told the BBC “All the key players are now in place to make the post-antibiotic world a reality. If MRC-1 becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era. At that point if a patient is seriously ill, say with E. coli, then there is virtually nothing you can do.” This means we will live in world where small infections could mean death.
We have helped create this problem by overusing anti-biotic drugs in ourselves and in our food. Anti-biotic drugs are typically used to keep livestock well and promote their growth. China for example, routinely uses Colistin, a type of antibiotic, to promote growth in animals, such as pigs. This increases in exposure of antibiotics to bacteria; help create superbugs resistant to our drugs. Urvashi Rangan executive director of the Food Safety and Sustainability Center stated, “Eliminating routine antibiotic use is an important step in protecting the effectiveness of medicine for future generations. Using drugs to promote growth and compensate for hygiene problems puts everyone at risk.” The review of Antimicrobial Resistance estimates that by 2050 there will be over 300,000 deaths in North America alone, due to antimicrobial resistance, every year. Today at least 23,000 people die every year from antimicrobial resistance, according to the U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s a race against time, unless the human race can find new forms of medicine to fight against these resistant strains, then we will be plunged back into the times before Penicillin was discovered. Where in the 1918 flu pandemic, according to Yahoo News “most of the 50 – 100 million people who died were killed by bacterial pneumonia, not the flu virus itself.” Being unable to treat common infections would also take away our ability to perform surgeries; organ transplants and even do chemotherapy. Common disease would bring in death tolls much greater than today and we would all be in danger, but there is hope, drugs that are in development such as teixobactin, show promise, but still need human testing. The question is will they be ready in time for when these resistant strains become more common? It is only a matter of time before the drugs we currently have at hand become useless against these new breeds of bacteria.