Inevitable as in OMG, failure as in serious.
Imagine World War Three, a Force 5 hurricane and an end-of-the-dinosaurs meteor strike all at the same time.
All caused by the weapons we use against microscopic adversaries we can’t even see – the antibiotics we use to fight pathogenic bacteria.
Amazing creations, antibiotics. Enabling modern medicine work miracles every day.
Except their edge is blunting fast – as canny bacteria mutate to develop resistance to our wonder-drugs – increasingly immune to everything we throw at them.
Antimicrobial resistance or AMR, it’s called. Bacteria impervious to even heavy doses of medication – just another bump in the road to the most successful single-celled living creature of all time – the latest hiccup in 5 billion years of evolution.
Of course, AMR was always going to happen. Bacteria are ultimate survivors – able thrive at temperatures from a freezing 0⁰C to a volcanic 350⁰C – in acidity from near pure water to concentrated battery acid – and if necessary, even without oxygen.
So that messing about in a laboratory for anything except a short-term solution is futile. Alexander Fleming, father of modern antibiotics even said as much in his 1945 lecture accepting the Nobel Prize.
His concern was that the bugs could gain immunity from under-dosing – killing the weakest but allowing the strongest to escape from non-lethal quantities. And with an organism able to divide by fission into new cells in as little as 20 minutes, it was only a matter of time before bacteria found ways.
Tick, tick, tick
They certainly did. Against penicillin, discovered in 1928 with resistant staph emerging in in 1940; tetracycline, introduced in 1950 with resistant shigella in 1959; erythromycin, launched in 1953 with resistant strep occurring in 1968; methicillin in 1960 with resistance in 1962; levofloxacin in 1996 with resistance in the same year; linezolid in 2000 and resistance 2001; daptomycin in 2003 and resistance in 2004.
Today it’s even worse, with some superbugs becoming pan-resistant – responsive to NO antibiotics at all. Small wonder that Dr Dame Sally Davies, England’s Chief Medical Officer, sees AMR as a threat on the same scale as terrorism.
Except that Dame Sally is wrong on the focus, medical AMR is just the tip of the iceberg. Agriculturally, AMR is many, many times bigger – so that, short of a massive alien invasion, antibiotics resistance is quite possibly the biggest challenge ever to the human race.
Check the math.
All in the numbers
In 1950, world population was 2,557,628,654 –the biggest killers were pneumonia and TB, and ploughs on the farm were still drawn by horses.
In 2016, world population is 7,334,771,614, most diseases are completely under control and “factory farms” are highly mechanised.
300% increase in mouths to feed, but the land area to produce the necessary food is still the same. Mechanisation? Sure. GM crops? Let’s face it, farmers have been fiddling with plant breeding for yonks. But three times as much food to eat from the same space, how is that possible?
Right first time, antibiotics.
First used as a growth promoter in 1950 – and today fattening up livestock so much that round the world, 65,000 tons of agricultural antibiotics are swallowed by cows, pigs, chickens and sheep every year.
Yeah, well that’s the OTHER thing antibiotics do – they bulk up animal bodies – twice the size in half the time, on half the feed. From fresh-laid egg to a 1.5 kg supermarket chicken in six weeks – from new-born calf to a full-size Aberdeen Angus steer in one year instead of four.
Feeding the billions
Which is how come farmers can produce food enough for 7.3 billion hungry people from the same land once struggling to feed 2.5 billion.
Put in perspective, and looking at USA beef cattle production only, 1950s technology would require an additional 165 million acres to produce the same amount of beef, an area about the size of Texas – 20% of mainland America.
Or as the Yanks like to boast, 25% of the world’s beef from 10% of the world’s cattle.
It’s antibiotics make this possible – that compensate for the intensive battery-style living, the highly stressful over-crowding, the low level of hygiene from animals living on top of each other, the otherwise unavoidable breeding grounds for animal disease and infection.
Antibiotics in feedstuffs bulk animals up – and also keep them healthy in impossible conditions.
But animals are living metabolisms too – and just like us, the bacteria inside them develop resistance to the constant flow of antibiotics going through their bodies. Billions of times more likely than with humans – there are billions more of them.
Pan-resistance everywhere – antibiotics failure on a colossal scale.
Which means the day is coming when animals fall ill from the living environments they’re in – and with antibiotics no longer able to protect them, disease goes through their thousands and thousands like wildfire. Round the world, other food animals pick up the contagion, sicken and die.
Plants too, suffer the same antibiotics resistance, succumbing to the many types of blight and other disease that fruit, vegetable and grain crops are prone to.
Hunger and famine
Without food, 7.5 billion start feeling hungry.
Never mind AMR, it’s FAMINE that’s going to get us. With no way out, except for a lucky few – in a world surrounded by dying animals and vegetation.
You mean inevitable. Antibiotics resistance is a fact. In medical circles, it is already an emergency. And AMR is already widely reported across agriculture. Total failure is already on the cards.
OK, so several billion of us aren’t going to make it.
Those that do will have to live in a world without antibiotics. So will the animals, out in the open where they belong, not cooped up in jail for us humans. And for every living thing there’ll be no more miracle drugs.
Just as 100 years ago, a simple scratch or mouthful of iffy food could be the last of us. So it’s back to Victorian-style carbolic and scrub, meticulous hand-washing hygiene before and after every activity as our first line of protection.
We will certainly need it. After seven decades of constant antibiotics ourselves – in our medicine and from the foods we eat – our immune systems are weaker than they ever were, less robust, less resilient – our internal gut bacteria ravaged by the same antibiotics supposed to be so beneficial.
Get out of jail free
Which means hygiene around us will be critical too. At home, in our workplaces, in all the enclosed spaces where we group together, vulnerable to each other’s germs and the normal germs on everything around us.
Fortunately, a Hypersteriliser can keep our surroundings sterile – making them safe with misted hydrogen peroxide that kills all viruses and bacteria by oxidation. Kinda like external antibiotics, but without the downside.
And yes, we will fight back. We won’t have antibiotics, but we will have phages – go-getter body VIRUSES that attack harmful bacteria – a therapy that has been used in the former Soviet Union for even longer than antibiotics. Not back to the future, but forward to the past.
We SHALL overcome.
Picture Copyright: goodluz / 123RF Stock Photo