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End of the Antibiotic Age: You’ve Been Warned

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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pills spilling out of a bottleWidespread antibiotic resistance is no longer a potential problem but has become a major threat, according to the World Health Organization. This news comes as no surprise to the Scientific American community, thanks to Maryn McKenna‘s prescient feature article “The Enemy Within,” which ran three years ago in the April 2011 issue.

Naturally, you’ll think I’m biased because I work here–and I have had the pleasure of editing Maryn on numerous occasions–but hers is the kind of smart “ahead of the headlines” reporting and analysis that our readers can expect for just $40 a year (which gives you access to Maryn’s feature plus everything else going four years back).

For example, McKenna, who also blogs at Superbug and is one of MIT’s Research Fellows in Science Journalism this year, explained something in her 2011 article that not a lot of people realize even today: a large part of what makes antibiotic resistance so scary right now is that it is rapidly escalating among Gram-negative bacteria, such as Klebsiella, which for a variety of reasons are tougher to defeat than Gram-positive bacteria, such as Staphylococci.

Did I mention she also alerted readers in 2012 to growing number of cases of drug-resistant gonorrhea (another Gram-negative bug)? Read more in our In-depth Report on “The Crisis in Antibiotic Resistance.”

I also happen to know (because I edited the story) that the upcoming June issue of Scientific American has a feature article that describes how networking a few hundred universal pathogen detectors (technology that will become commercially available in the next couple of years) could help counter the problem by letting doctors know when and which antibiotics to prescribe and when they won’t work because, for example, a viral infection is amking the patient sick.

So stick with Scientific American, as we all learn how to live in a bleaker new age without antibiotics. If they are any potential solutions on the horizon, we’ll be the first to let you know.


About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rshoff2 1:22 pm 04/30/2014

    What will the post anti-biotic era look like? For example, I grew up in a time that we were told if we did not treat strep throat that it would turn into rheumatic fever.

    What about STDs? Syphilis? Gonorrhea? Even normal things like era infections? And what about bacteria and surgery?

    Do we have a culture that will supports quarantines? Do we have the will to go back to the days of putting people is sick rooms at home (no more kitchen or TV room privileges for the ill), sending them home from work and school?

    Who is to blame? Me? Farmers? Doctors? My next door neighbor?

    How do we reign it in? Do we start by outlawing antibiotic use in animals and livestock? Or do we start by outlawing use of antibiotics at the Dr’s office? (cynical questions).

    How do we move forward? Any new antibiotic therapies on the horizon?

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  2. 2. singing flea 3:37 pm 04/30/2014

    I fail to see why this scenario is a cause for alarm. Nature has a way of solving it’s own problems. If a few billion people die from plagues that can’t be treated with modern medicine, the survivors will be a stronger race as a result. The ones who have the best chance of survival will be the people who avoided the antibiotics as much as possible and stayed away from farm raised meat. They will have the least compromised immune systems.

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  3. 3. Christine Gorman 7:51 pm 04/30/2014

    singing flea wrote:

    >>The ones who have the best chance of survival will be the people who avoided the antibiotics as much as possible and stayed away from farm raised meat.<<

    That's a common, but incorrect misconception. Once antibiotic-resistant bacteria become the norm, they will be able to infect anyone no matter what their previous eating or hygienic habits.

    So, even vegans who have never ingested antibiotics could die of untreatable strep, skin diseases, food borne illnesses, etc. in the post-antibiotic age.

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  4. 4. singing flea 5:06 am 05/1/2014

    I would have to disagree Christine. While it is true that anyone can contract the diseases regardless of their dietary habits and drug use, there is plenty of examples of people who don’t get sick as easily as many others. For example, scientific studies have shown that children who grew up with dogs and cats tend to have less illnesses and allergies later in life than those who didn’t. The reasoning is that the bodies natural defenses are improved with exposure to germs early in life. The MERSA germs are resistant to antibiotics, not the persons own immune system. Another good example is certain bacteria that cause necrotizing fasciitis. A variety of this bacteria is present in the sea water in Hawaii,and millions are exposed to it every year, but very few people actually ever contract the disease. This is because the bodies own defense is very effective against this particular strain. When the bodies defenses are fed slow doses of antibiotics over long periods of time, the body stops producing as many antibodies. The reason why doctors will always tell you to take the full prescription even if you feel better is so bacteria doesn’t get a chance to develop a tolerance for the drugs.

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  5. 5. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:24 am 05/2/2014

    The reason is antibiotic overuse in farming industry.

    That your doctor may prescribe you 10 instead of 5 doses of antibiotics has little effect compared to a farm, where thousands of cows and pigs are fed antibiotics daily by default.

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  6. 6. Ingemulder14113912 5:07 pm 05/3/2014

    I would strongly like to disagree with singing flee. Although you have a point concerning the improved and more disease resistant immune system of those belonging to “the stronger race”, I can’t help but feel that you have adopted a very laissez faire attitude to this problem. The invention of pharmaceuticals was done solely to prevent the death from disease. If we completely ignore this problem and except it as an inevitability we are signing our own death warrants, and that of our families.

    New innovative techniques (non-traditional medical) should be used to treat disease, like fecal transplants or giving patients garlic doses, and more emphasis should be placed on disease prevention.

    I’m not saying that I have all the answers but I don’t see any solutions in this defeatist attitude.

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  7. 7. 14075319 5:57 pm 05/3/2014

    I would have to agree blindly with Singing flee. We should not forget that once upon a time the common influenza was one of the leading causes of death in the 1900′s and today we just pop a pill and voila!!!! problem solved.

    It is a cause for great concern that viruses and bacteria are mutating and antibiotics may not be sufficient treatment, however, just as past times, we as scientists CAN research and produce new and effective treatment.

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  8. 8. Jomerrick 4:30 pm 05/5/2014

    well if you edited the article and aking = making, your little voice should be screaming at you.

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  9. 9. Prairie Dog 9:52 am 05/7/2014

    To singing flea: I take it you’ve been studying Rev. Malthus recently. Let the dideases roll on; it keeps the population in check, and eugenically weeds out the weakest.

    What next? Back to the Book of Revelation and the Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse?
    You’ve covered pestilence, so….
    Keep fighting those Wars; they’re a natural population control.
    Limit food production to just what grows wild. That will lead to Famine, eliminating those least able to survive starvation, making the population that much smaller and hardier.
    What can we say about Death? Eventually it gets us all, even those who survive the other three. Malthusian/Apocalyptic conditions.

    To 14075319: Pop a pill and your flu is cured? Really? Please let us all know what medications cure an active case of flu.

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  10. 10. rshoff2 11:42 am 05/30/2014

    What about the suffering of those billions of people? It’s not just about survival. It’s also about thriving.

    Link to this

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