Last week saw a news item worthy of a headline even if someone is compiling news once every century, and yet it was missed by most.
Lancet reported that we are on the “cusp of post-antibiotic era”; i.e. bacteria are now getting immune to all the drugs that we have. So, in near future, we could end up dying from a small cut, let alone an operative procedure. Our biggest weapon, antibiotics, is defeated by evolution.
Serendipitous discovery of penicillin in 1928 and subsequent development of antibiotic-dominated pharmacology was, probably, a game changer event in our history, as it freed us innumerable diseases. There is no greater achievement of science that reduced human suffering which is comparable to discovery of antibiotics.
Unfortunately, humanity used the wisdom of Ayn Rand – “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”- while exploiting, possibly, this greatest gift from nature (as all antibiotics are found from living organisms).
After arrival of antibiotics, it became extremely convenient for doctors (more so for quacks) to prescribe them indiscriminately for cough to cancer. As humanity moved towards fast paced life style, waiting for the immune system to fight an infection looked like a stupid waste of time. So, it became common practice to use these big guns, very often in dark, to shoot down infections that really required no such external intervention.
While we were busy munching antibiotics and killing bacteria indiscriminately (including many that kept us alive), nature was responding to this onslaught using the only tool she has: evolution.
With each antibiotic attack on bacteria, a process of selective breeding started, as some bacteria in each population would have immunity to the drug. As drugs interacted with more and more bacteria, more and more immune batches survived and were favored to breed. This allowed the immunity to spread across populations and drug-resistance (DR) started appearing across the globe.
While bacteria developed DR strains, we did fight back with more potent antibiotics. But, now scientists can see that it is difficult to keep pace with evolution. Bacteria are pulling ahead now and seem to be winning the race.
The more serious part of this story is what we did while bacteria were evolving DR strains. Fooled by the cocoon of comfort that technology has enveloped us with, we have turned into animals that have stepped out of evolutionary culling. While bacteria were selectively breeding for immunity against drugs, no such selection for fitness is faced by technology-aided human body. We did not counter-evolve in tandem with our biggest enemy.
Looking at the situation now, we are stripped off the technology-protection; and, with continued abuse of antibiotics, we are still accelerating bacterial evolution. The horse is bolted from the stable and there is no turning back.
It is entirely possible that this is our Armageddon. If we want to survive we need to start acting before we pass the cusp.
We need to stop indiscriminate and unprofessional use of antibiotics immediately to slow down evolution of more DR strains. We also have to diligently watch out for DR strains and try to limit their spread.
Even more important is to start looking at our immunity as the first line of defense against infections instead of depending on medicines. With access to quality nutrition, humanity has a great opportunity to be fit enough to fight this crucial battle.
We, in India, have a very serious responsibility as we are world leaders in antibiotics abuse. So, next time you pop a pill, please check with your doctor if it is really necessary. You could be saving humanity of future from a lot of suffering (or even extinction) by acting responsibly today.