Soon, the antibiotics we’ve relied on to heal minor bacterial infections will no longer work, the CDC has warned.
If that happens, almost everything and anything could kill you, just like things were before penicillin was discovered in 1928.
Here’s an incomplete list, created with help from Maryn McKenna’s excellent post on our post-antibiotic future on Medium.
- Eating meat — bacteria on meat can be resistant to antibiotics, and kill you.
- Getting scratched — before penicillin, 1 in 9 skin infections killed.
- Having any kind of surgery or biopsy — even the most minor surgery leaves you open for infection.
- Treatments like dialysis or a blood transplant — an open portal to your blood leaves you open to sepsis.
- An insect bite — insect bites, especially those that are itchy, lead to infections if scratching opens the wound and microbes under your fingernails invade.
- A mild cold or flu — if a virus takes down your immune system, pneumonia can set in. Without antibiotics, 30% of cases kill.
- Childbirth — natural childbirth used to kill 5 mothers out of 1000, and Cesarean sections are a surgery, which opens you up to infection.
- Being put on a ventilator or catheter.
- Implanted medical devices like artificial hips or pacemakers.
- Minor burns — burns are the most infection-prone wound.
- Cosmetic plastic surgery — this falls under surgeries, but deserves its own mention because society acts like getting a couple of Botox injections is risk free. In the post-antibiotic era, it’s not.
- Getting a tattoo — No one wants to voluntarily open themselves up to an infection in the post-antibiotic era.
Because any type of surgery could produce an untreatable infection, we would also lose the ability to treat non-infectious diseases like cancer, put people back together after car accidents, perform surgery to unblock arteries due to heart disease, and transplant organs.
And these types of infections are already killing people. The CDC released numbers a few months ago stating that antibiotic-resistant infections kill 23,000 people a year. That may seem small, but these infections are increasing at a rapid rate.
As McKenna notes in her post, it takes only a few years for resistance to emerge to a new antibiotic. And drug companies aren’t investing in the market — there are only five new antibiotics in development. And we haven’t seen a new one in 25 years.
And we aren’t doing much about it. Antibiotics are used liberally in agriculture. Doctors prescribe them for viral infections like the cold and flu. People don’t take their entire dose and dump their extras into the water supply.
All of these add up to increasing levels of resistance. If things continue as they are, we have about 20 years until a minor scrape can become potentially life-threatening again.
Read McKenna’s post (produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, non-profit news organisation producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health) to learn more about what we have to look forward to in a future without antibiotics.
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