Antibiotic resistance: a return to the pre-antibiotic world is coming faster than you think

Photo credit: Julian Stratenschulte/EPA/Corbis

We are seeing an alarming increase in new reports on the growth rate of antibiotic resistance. We cannot forecast the future date when we will return to the pre-antibiotic world. But we can be confident that if coordinated global action is undertaken straight away then the costs and social impact will be much lower than coping with the frightening future ahead.

This is a hard problem, possibly a “wicked problem“, thought not quite like the scale of climate change solutions. The costs of effective action to save antibiotics are a small fraction of what is required to decarbonize developing economies. And the required cooperation is not nearly so diffuse.

I will cite a couple of recent links that offer a survey of what is happening and what should be done to prolong our “golden age” of effective antibiotics. First Megan McArdle’s Bloomberg piece  Life Without Antibiotics Would Be Nasty, Brutish and Short(er); second CDC Threat Report: ‘We Will Soon Be in a Post-Antibiotic Era’ by Maryn McKenna, author of Superbug; and third, the key source for the McKenna article Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sept. 16, 2013.

From the press release for the CDC Threat Report 2013:

This report, Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013 gives a first-ever snapshot of the burden and threats posed by the antibiotic-resistant germs having the most impact on human health.

Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Antibiotic-resistant infections can happen anywhere. Data show that most happen in the general community; however, most deaths related to antibiotic resistance happen in healthcare settings such as hospitals and nursing homes.

For thoughts on some policy solutions I recommend Megan McArdle’s October 2011 analysis. And lastly, become a member of the International Society for Infectious Diseases (we are). Members of the ISID can subscribe to the International Journal of Infectious Diseases at a discount – but note the journal goes open access in 2014.