Less than 100 years have passed since the discovery of antibiotics, and it’s probably the understatement of the century to say that without them our lives wouldn’t be the same.
Before penicillin was discovered in 1928, an American was lucky to draw breath after age 60. Women routinely died in childbirth; a man with a cut might perish within days of infection.
Today, most Americans expect to live beyond 80, largely because of medical advances such as cesarean sections and chemotherapy that would be useless without effective antibiotics.
That’s why it’s so important that we get serious about outbreaks like the one at Los Angeles’ UCLA Medical Center, where exposure to drug-resistant “nightmare bacteria” might have endangered as many as 179 patients and is suspected to have caused at least two deaths.
The UCLA scare, linked to a specialized medical scope that is hard to clean and marketed aggressively to doctors, is hardly our first brush with superbug peril.
A British report in December found that, in the U.S. and Europe alone, more than 50,000 lives are claimed annually from infections such as MRSA and CRE, the bacteria associated with the UCLA crisis. (The acronym stands for “carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae.”) By 2050, the report warned, such infections will kill 10 million people worldwide each year unless we address antibiotic resistance. That involves actions as ambitious as underwriting research into new antibacterial treatments and as seemingly small as not pestering your doctor for antibiotics when you get the sniffles. A striking number of Americans don’t realize that colds and the flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria.
President Barack Obama has called for major medical research, including nearly doubling the federal investment in antibiotic research. This is key because the number of new antibiotics in the drug pipeline has steadily dwindled in recent decades.
State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is trying again to legally limit the amount of antibiotics used on livestock. About four-fifths of the antibiotics consumed nationally are fed to cows, pigs and chickens to promote growth and combat the disease-prone environment of factory farming. Agribusinesses have said they will scale back the meds, but overuse of anti-bacterial drugs in animal husbandry remains a big reason that superbugs have come so far so fast.
Despite growing awareness of this problem, antibiotic use in animals actually went up in 2013, not down, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Public health officials say initiatives like these are only part of the solution. We also need better sanitation in hospitals and for doctors to not overprescribe the drugs.
Like all living creatures, bacteria are constantly evolving. Historically, the discovery of every antibiotic has been followed within years by the discovery of a bacteria that can withstand it.
Scientists this month unveiled the results of a project that mapped the genetic profile of the New York subway system. The handrails, turnstiles and seats swarmed with 15,000 kinds of microbial life forms. At 220 stops, they found drug-resistant bacteria.