Antibiotics are everywhere. Not only are they available at your local pharmacy, but they are also found in bandages, ointments, and trace amounts are even found in the fish, milk, beef, chicken, pork we eat. Farmers have been feeding antibiotics to their animals for decades, keeping them healthy and fit. This treatment, while effective at first, can cause some very significant problems as time passes. Antimicrobial resistance, coupled with climate change, may very well spell disaster for the human race.
Antibiotics are nothing new, and people have been using them to treat illness, infection, and disease since ancient times. But it was not until the 1800s that scientists began to study antibiotics, allowing us to understand how they work against bacteria. In 1909, the first antibiotic, arsphenamine, was discovered and was effective in treating syphilis. Less than twenty years later, Alexander Fleming recorded the astounding effects of Penicillium notatum on bacteria, and less than twenty years after that, the US was producing mass amounts of penicillin. This “miracle drug” has saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
But what happens when antibiotics become a “cure-all” treatment? Within the last fifteen years, consumer use of antibiotics has more than doubled. The rise of antibiotic use is most notable in low-income countries that are still developing, such as India and China. People there are being prescribed incredibly strong antibiotics, often without needing them. While this may allow you to get back to work sooner, and feel better sooner, overuse or improper use of antibiotics can lead to bacterial resistance.
Bacteria naturally develop resistance to antibiotics. When those resistant strains multiply and begin rapidly infecting the nearby bacterial cells, the antibiotic is no longer capable of destroying the bacteria, and the mutated germs can pass to someone else, ensuring that the bacteria in their body is also resistant to antibiotic treatment. Should this pattern continue, antibiotics would become useless, as they would all be unable to treat these resistant bacteria.
Unfortunately, the increase in antimicrobial-resistant bacteria has already begun. Each year, 2 million people in the US get an antibiotic-resistant infection. The mcr-gene, discovered in 2015, is a human genetic mutation in response to the overuse of antibiotics. The function of this gene is to resist the antibiotic colistin, one of the most powerful antimicrobial drugs on the market. The gene has been discovered in more than twelve states so far.
Scientists and medical professionals theorize that this increased occurrence of antimicrobial resistance could do more damage to humanity than climate change, and at a far faster rate. Because of global connectivity, travel, and commerce, the spread of a worldwide pandemic could take as little as one day, possibly even less. A bacterial pandemic would be devastating. Hundreds of millions of people would die. And that’s with the statistics available now. If antibiotic use is not regulated and restricted, within ten years such a pandemic could end the entire human species.
In addition, climate change has caused much of glacial ice to melt, and within that ice are microbes, thousands of years old, that haven’t been seen since people first walked the earth. We have no resistance to these bacteria, no built-in immunity. When that icy water flows into the ocean, the bacteria may multiply, diversify, and infect. When the fish that carry that bacteria are hauled to shore, we are in for trouble. That is unless we learn to use antibiotics sparingly, and wisely.