Before the advent of antibiotics, a common infection could be life-threatening, and many children lost their lives to strep throat. That time could be upon us once again, at least where industrialized nations are concerned.
A 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman was recently diagnosed with a rare form of E.coli, one that can be killed by only one antibiotic and soon perhaps by none of them, according to the Department of Defense.
The recently discovered antibiotic-resistant gene, known as mcr-1, has also been found in China and Europe. Its emergence in the United States for the first time heralds the emergence of a so-called superbug, or a bacteria which could reasonably mutate beyond all current antibiotics, including colistin which is considered a last resort.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Frieden addressed the emergence of the pathogen Thursday during a speech in Washington about the Zika virus. “The medicine cabinet is empty for some patients,” Frieden said. “It is the end of the road for antibiotics if we don't do something.”
The biggest fear is that these superbugs will transfer their immunity to other bacteria who are already resistant to other forms of antibiotics, as bacteria are able to share loose genetic material with one another. According the CDC’s Dr. Beth Bell, this E. coli case is a wake-up call, signaling that they will soon acquire the last component needed to resist all forms of antibiotics.
Luckily, for the Pennsylvania woman, though the bacteria culture from her infection was found to resist colistin and other antibiotics, it was receptive to carbapenems. It is still a mystery how the woman came into contact with the bacteria.
Humanity is facing an all-out emergency when it comes to the absence of new drugs. Antimicrobial resistance is fast becoming a scourge of our time, while the fight against unremitting killers like cancer and heart disease can always benefit from novel molecular weaponry. And that’s just the start. Alzheimer’s, diabetes, pain medications and anti-viral medication; we need it all, and more, not to mention new chemical tools for applications as varied as cosmetics and dairy products. All of which is to say that excursions like this one are about far more than the romance of cataloguing the natural world.
So what is left to be done? Because antimicrobial resistance has no single solution, it must be fought on many fronts. The use of antibiotics to accelerate growth in farm animals can be banned by agriculture ministries. All the better if governments jointly agree to enforce such rules widely. In both people and animals, policy should be to vaccinate more so as to stop infections before they start.
That should appeal to cash-strapped health systems, because prophylaxis is cheaper than treatment. By the same logic, hospitals and other breeding grounds for resistant bugs should prevent infections by practicing better hygiene. Governments should educate the public about how antibiotics work and how they can help halt the spread of resistance.
Such policies cannot reverse the tragedy of the commons, but they can make it a lot less tragic. Enough time has been wasted issuing warnings about antibiotic resistance. The moment has come to do something about it.
Luisa Fernanda Baez