For decades, antibiotics have been used as a veritable cure-all. Got an ear infection? Here's some amoxicillin. Chest cold bordering on bronchial infection? Azithromycin will take care of it. General malaise? Maybe it's an infection, maybe it's nothing — but take these pills just in case.
Such liberal use of antibiotics may be coming to a deadly head as drug-resistant bacteria multiply, eventually leaving doctors with no way to treat infection.
The discussion was spurred by a report in the medical journal Lancet Infectious Diseases that detailed a new drug-resistant “superbug” spreading around the world.
The specific strains of Enterobacteriaceae causing all the commotion, known as NDM-1, are just the latest additions to a long list of bacteria that laugh in the face of antibiotics, including MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).
TIME calls the development of such bacteria “one of the simplest demonstrations of evolution at work”, explaining that susceptible bacteria are the first to succumb to antibiotics, leaving the more robust bacteria behind to reproduce and become stronger.
It's a biological boon for bacteria, but for us it may bring back the days of dying from infection after simple surgeries like appendix removal.
Sarah Bosely of The Guardian writes, “The era of antibiotics is coming to a close. In just a couple of generations, what once appeared to be miracle medicines have been beaten into ineffectiveness by the bacteria they were designed to knock out. Once, scientists hailed the end of infectious diseases. Now, the post-antibiotic apocalypse is within sight.”
In The New York Times, Dr. Martin J. Blaser, chairman of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center, cautions against an overreaction.
“They’re all bad. Is NDM-1 more worrisome than MRSA? It’s too early to judge.”
Experts say the new drug-resistant bacteria from South Asia aren't an immediate threat to the West, but they recommend that medical tourists in particular — those who travel to other countries for cosmetic, reproductive and other surgeries — get screened if they come home feeling ill.