The UN made a pretty serious announcement the other day. They declared that antibiotic resistance is the “greatest and most urgent global risk.” Move aside climate change.
Antibiotics are pretty amazing things. They were invented in the early 1900s and quickly revolutionized medicine. Antibiotics save millions of people from dying from bacterial infection. They work in many ways: some interfere with bacteria’s metabolism, some attack DNA to prevent bacteria from multiplying, and others rip the outside of the bacteria to shreds so that their insides spill out. Full on stuff.
However by evolutionary chance some bacteria inevitably develop immunity. In general this is not a big deal as the immune system deals with whatever slips through the antibiotics net. But these immune bacteria can escape and spread and eventually you get ‘superbugs’; bacteria that has developed immunity against many different antibiotics.
A race has emerged where scientists have to develop new antibiotics faster than the old ones become redundant.
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A large disconnect has emerged in the use of antibiotics. In the developed world they have come to be treated like a right rather than a privilege. More liberal prescription gives antibiotics more opportunities to develop immunity. Antibiotics have also come to be ubiquitous in meat production in order to counteract the frequently unhygienic storage of livestock. In China pigs are given colistin, which is a last resort antibiotic. It isn’t used much as it can damage the liver so bacterial resistance hasn’t had a chance to develop. Chinese pigs developed resistance and in 2015 this resistance was passed onto humans.
At the same time millions of people in developing nations still don’t have access to antibiotics. People continue to die from sicknesses that we wouldn’t bat an eyelash at in New Zealand.
Super bugs are scary, especially when you consider the interconnectedness of the modern world. The World Health Organisation says the overuse and misuse of antibiotics is the main accelerating factor. If we want to win the race then we must be more prudent in considering whether antibiotics are necessary.