Here's what life will look like when the antibiotic apocalypse arrives
Sitting in the doctor's waiting room with a minor injury or illness sometimes feels like more of a chore than anything else. Whether you've got an infected scrape on your leg, or you've picked up a common cold that's turned nasty, it's almost certain that the worst-case scenario is a course of antibiotics and an instruction to not move from beneath your covers for a few days. The question is not "will I get better?" but "when will I get better?"
Yet, rather than a worry-free affair, soon enough, sitting in the doctor's waiting room could feel like queuing up to meet Doctor Death. Yes, even with that completely minor injury or illness.
Experts have claimed that when the antibiotic apocalypse fully hits, something as simple as a cut on your finger could kill you. The World Health Organization has warned that, as bacteria changes in a way that reduces the effectiveness of drugs, "many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, could kill unabated".
The storm is brewing but, in many ways, it's already hit - and no one seems to have fully acknowledged it. According to the AMR, globally, at least 700,000 people die each year from drug-resistant infections. This troubling figure is only growing and could reach 10 million per year by 2050.
If you’re thinking it won’t affect you because you never use antibiotics, think again. Bacteria become resistant to antibiotics rather than carriers, so even if you're frugal with your trips to your physician, you're still well and truly in the firing line.
When we eventually all become immune to the drugs we've been hooked on ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, experts claim that anything and everything could be affected; childbirth, organ transplants, cancer treatments or getting your appendix removed. In fact, even simple, run-of-the-mill problems like water infections are becoming more and more difficult to treat as the bacteria that cause them learn to thrive.
This is largely due to farming, with the drugs in question going back into our bodies through the meat we consume. For example, the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center's recent study discovered that bacteria that commonly cause water infections are often the same bacteria that can be found in retail meat, meaning that the people suffering from water infections sometimes contracted the pathogen from meat they consumed or handled.
"People have never thought about food as being a source for why you can get a water infection but it is actually," Managing Director of ARAC, Laura Rogers told VT in an interview.
"We've done quantitative and qualitative research with people to see what they understand, what they don't understand," said Rogers. "Maybe it's a little bit on some people's radar but for most people, they just don't get it and they think that, of course, we'll just make new drugs because that's basically what we do, we get a condition and we find a drug for it and we move on. What people don't realise is that the drug companies, for a variety of reasons, have really gotten out of the antibiotic production issue. They're not making them anymore. They've moved on."
This is hardly surprising news. A new fully-fledged antibiotic hasn’t been discovered since the 1980s, with resistance to the most recently-discovered one, colistin - once seen as a last resort - spreading at an alarming rate. In fact, in one area of China, it was found that 25 per cent of hospital patients now carried the gene.
In February 2018 however, there was a ray of fresh hope when it was announced US scientists had discovered a family of antibiotics in soil samples. However, scientists have claimed it's impossible to say when, or if, an early-stage discovery like this will proceed to the clinic. Plus, even if we do find another antibiotic, what's to stop us from squandering it?
Rogers - and many other experts - believe the most effective way to stop the inevitable is to change the behaviour of both our medical establishment and our patients so that we don't use antibiotics as often - something that is much easier said than done.
Many experts claim that educating physicians in exactly when to give a patient antibiotics, as well as starting a diagnostic test that clearly establishes whether or not you need antibiotics, will help. The ARAC Managing Director says: "We need diagnostic tests, we need something that when you go to the doctors and say 'I have pneumonia' and they do a test, you wait for 10 minutes, they'll come back and say 'actually you don't have pneumonia, you have bronchiolitis, antibiotics won't help you'. And that you're satisfied because you know they've told you nope, that's not a condition that you have."
This is easier said than done though, with many insurance companies believing it's cheaper to prescribe a $4 antibiotic than a $15 diagnostic test - in spite of the risk to public health they take in doing so. Nonetheless, it's certainly not all down to the medical professionals. With the lack of knowledge about the crisis, it seems people are demanding antibiotics with every sign of illness and this is something we need to change.
"With the changing health, you're thinking of yourself more as a customer than as a patient. We have to find ways also for providers to talk to their patients, or their customer whatever we want to call them, in ways that leave both parties satisfied," Rogers explained.
"If you think about it, when you're feeling really crappy and they gave you an antibiotic, you just want to feel better and chances are you went to the doctor, you had bronchitis and they gave you an antibiotic and you did start to feel better. But it's not because of the antibiotic, it's just with all illnesses eventually you're going to turn that corner."
When you put it like that, the road to survival seems simple. Let's ban antibiotics from farming use, train medical practitioners to place them on the back of the top shelf, encourage good hygiene, bring in diagnostics tests, entice drug companies back into the antibiotic game and educate patients thoroughly on the situation.
Easy, right? Nonetheless, on the off-chance that we did manage to make these changes stick, would you be happy being told that, rather than being given drugs that could immediately cure you, you would just be left to sweat it out and see what happens?
I didn't think so.
Featured illustration by Egarcigu