Did your cut get infected? Take a pill. Respiratory infection? Take a different pill. Sinus infection, there’s a pill for that, too. But there is bad news coming to light: all those pills are becoming obsolete and there’s very little anyone can do about that.
Antibiotics revolutionized medicine. Before antibiotics, doctors tried to keep the patient alive long enough for the infection to be driven off by the body’s own defenses. With antibiotics, doctors could rid the body of (bacterial) infection with a shot or a pill. Enter the golden age of medicine.
Today, pharmaceutical companies pump out over 200,000 tons (yes, that’s not a mistake, that’s tons) of antibiotics every year. That’s a lot of bacteria killers! The vast majority of these antibiotics, on the order of 80%, are given to animals being raised for food. This makes them gain weight faster and remain healthy long enough to make it to the slaughterhouse.
A lot of the human-ingested antibiotics are taken in poorer countries with limited access to doctors. Instead of seeing a doctor, people buy antibiotics over-the-counter and fight any illness with overwhelming pharmaceutical force. Additionally, many hospitals in poorer countries are paid by the pharmaceutical companies for prescribing their medications, driving a huge surge in antibiotic usage.
This deluge of antibiotics has caused the bacteria of the world to respond. As each antibiotic is released, bacteria either die or mutate to become immune. The surviving bacteria flourish and multiply, unconstrained by these tons of antibiotics.
Now doctors are facing an onslaught of infections where conventional antibiotics are ineffective. Once again they are relegated to trying to keep the patient alive until the body can overcome the infection. In many cases this is a losing strategy.
What can be done? First, the use of antibiotics in the food chain should be dramatically reduced. Improving the sanitation on the farms and ranches can help make antibiotic usage unnecessary. Better medical help and eliminating profit-driven antibiotic usage in poorer countries can help too.
Clearly, we cannot afford to run out of effective antibiotics.