Return of the Plagues

I recently read about about a very unpleasant medical surprise, as bacteria and viruses continue their – increasingly victorious – war against our antibiotics and vaccines.

The more you use an antibiotic, the more you expose a bacteria to an antibiotic, the greater the likelihood that resistance to that antibiotic is going to develop. So the more antibiotics we put into people, we put into the environment, we put into livestock, the more opportunities we create for these bacteria to become resistant. …We also know that we’ve greatly overused antibiotics and in overusing these antibiotics, we have set ourselves up for the scenario that we find ourselves in now, where we’re running out of antibiotics.

We are quickly running out of therapies to treat some of these infections that previously had been eminently treatable. There are bacteria that we encounter, particularly in health-care settings, that are resistant to nearly all — or, in some cases, all — the antibiotics that we have available to us, and we are thus entering an era that people have talked about for a long time.

For a long time, there have been newspaper stories and covers of magazines that talked about “The end of antibiotics, question mark?” Well, now I would say you can change the title to “The end of antibiotics, period.”

We’re here. We’re in the post-antibiotic era. There are patients for whom we have no therapy, and we are literally in a position of having a patient in a bed who has an infection, something that five years ago even we could have treated, but now we can’t…

This is grim news.

Now, it’s not the end of the world: far from it. Worse case, we’ll be eventually driven back in the pre-antibiotic era of 1900, and there were certainly advances and progress back then. We’ll still get that 3D printing, that cheap energy, and greater and greater technological advances. And the advances in sanitation that really extended our lives in the 1700-1900 period are still good: perhaps, even more important than ever.

But THE gift of the modern era – children bury their parents, and NOT the other way around – is likely to slip a fair bit. We may well start to lose some of our great lifespan increases, as well: Russian men lost quite a bit of years to their lives in the post-Soviet era, and our lifespan increases may also stagnate, and fall.

On the other hand, those technological advances are going to keep on coming: and that includes biotech. And right now, antibiotics and vaccines are not very profitable: but that will certainly change, as demand for effective antibiotics increase.

I think that we’ll get past this: but maybe not in my lifetime. Maybe 2050 or so.


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