I’ve thought a lot about antibiotic resistance, but I haven’t thought it through like Maryn McKenna in her TED talk.
What Ms. McKenna makes brutally clear is that we’re not talking about the end of dealing with infections. We’re talking about the end of safe surgery, the end of a fear free life where we can scratch ourselves and have antibiotics to fall back on if we need them.
So walk with me through a hospital in 2050, when antibiotics no longer work. Do you want to be there, where all the infections are rampant? Would you get a knee replacement, a hip surgery? A colonoscopy, a laparoscopic surgery, an in-vitro fertilization? What about having a routine exam of any kind at the doctor’s office, where other infectious patients still congregate even though antibiotics aren’t available for them? What about the nursing homes, which have now become the pneumonia wards?
We have been living in the golden age of modern medicine, if less than a century can be considered a golden age. The coming centuries do not look as rosy.
But will technology turn it around? Don’t hold your breath. The bacteria trade antibiotic resistant genes every twenty minutes. It takes a drug company ten years to get a new antibiotic on the market. The math is not in our favor.
Unlike Ms. McKenna, I don’t feel completely disheartened. It’s not because I believe we won’t continue to feed 80% of our antibiotics to animals to fatten them up (speeding up antibiotic resistance at the same time). It’s because drug companies aren’t the only source of antibiotic compounds. I realized this in medical school, and I’ve placed myself firmly in the area that we need when the antibiotics fail. Our drug pipeline won’t save us, but our herb garden is an untapped source of antibiotics, and the complex compounds found in herbs can be synthesized without patent technology. So far they haven’t been because a drug company can’t really patent oregano. But when the antibiotics fail, your modern doctor will be reaching into a spice rack to save lives.