Less than 100 years have passed since the discovery of antibiotics, and it’s probably the understatement of the century to say that without them our lives wouldn’t be the same.
Before penicillin was discovered in 1928, an American was lucky to draw breath after age 60. Women routinely died in childbirth; a man with a cut might perish within days of infection.
Today, most Americans expect to live beyond 80, largely because of medical advances such as cesarean sections and chemotherapy that would be useless without effective antibiotics.
That’s why it’s so important that we get serious about outbreaks like the one at Los Angeles’ UCLA Medical Center, where exposure to drug-resistant “nightmare bacteria” may have endangered as many as 179 patients and is suspected in at least two deaths.
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The UCLA scare, linked to a specialized medical scope that is hard to clean and marketed aggressively to doctors, is hardly our first brush with the superbug peril.
A British report in December found that, in the U.S. and Europe alone, more than 50,000 lives are claimed annually from infections such as MRSA and the CRE, the bacteria associated with the UCLA crisis. (The acronym stands for “carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae.”)
By 2050, the report warned, such infections will kill 10 million people worldwide each year unless we address the mounting threat of antibiotic resistance. That involves actions as ambitious as initiatives to underwrite research into new antibacterial treatments and as seemingly small as not pestering your doctor for antibiotics the next time you get bronchitis; a striking number of Americans don’t realize that colds and the flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria.
This year, President Barack Obama called for major research and development in medicine, including a proposal to nearly double the federal investment in antibiotic research. This is key because the number of new antibiotics in the drug pipeline has steadily dwindled in recent decades.
At the state level, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is trying again to legally limit the amount of antibiotics used on livestock. About four-fifths of the antibiotics consumed nationally are fed to cows, pigs and chickens to promote growth and combat the disease-prone environment of factory farming. Agribusinesses have said they will voluntarily scale back the meds, but overuse of anti-bacterial drugs in animal husbandry remains a big reason that superbugs have come so far so fast.
Public health officials say initiatives like these are only part of the solution. Hospitals need to get even more strict about sanitation; patients need to lose their reluctance to ask health care workers whether they’ve washed their hands lately. Doctors need to stop overprescribing. And even these won’t solve the problem unless we act globally.
Like all living creatures, bacteria are constantly evolving. Historically, the discovery of every antibiotic has been followed within years by the discovery of a bacteria that can withstand it.
We are not alone, and we forget that at our peril. Earlier this month, a team of scientists unveiled the results of a project that mapped the genetic profile of the New York subway system. The handrails, turnstiles and seats swarmed with more than 15,000 kinds of microbial life forms.
At 220 stops, they found drug-resistant bacteria.