The Grim Propect of Antibiotic Resistance

Staff Writer | The Economist | May 21, 2016

The evolution of pathogens is making many medical problems worse. Time to take drug resistance seriously

...Penicillin is now available in copious amounts, as are other bacteria-killing antibiotics. A thorn scratch today seems a minor irritant, not a potential killer. But that may be too sanguine. A study by America’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that the number of cases of sepsis rose from 621,000 to 1,141,000 between 2000 and 2008, with deaths rising from 154,000 to 207,000. One reason for that is the emergence of MRSA (pictured being attacked by a white blood cell)—a variety of Staphylococcus aureus that cannot be killed with methicillin, one of penicillin’s most effective descendants. This could just be a taste of things to come. Three years ago the CDC produced a list of 18 antibiotic-resistant microbes that threaten the health of Americans (see table). Five of them (including MRSA) cause sepsis.

When people hear about antibiotic resistance creating “superbugs”, they tend to think of new diseases and pandemics spreading out of control. The real threat is less flamboyant, but still serious: existing problems getting worse, sometimes dramatically. Infections acquired in hospital are a prime example. They are already a problem, but with more antibiotic resistance they could become a much worse one. Elective surgery, such as hip replacements, now routine, would come to carry what might be seen as unacceptable risk. So might Caesarean sections. The risks of procedures which suppress the immune system, such as organ transplants and cancer chemotherapies, would increase.

Such worsenings would not be restricted to hospitals. “Multi-drug resistant” and “extensively drug resistant” strains of tuberculosis cause 200,000 deaths a year, mostly in poor countries. Most people who die of tuberculosis at the moment do not die of one of these strains. But they are responsible for more than an eighth of fatal cases, and those cases might otherwise be susceptible to treatment...