What will Happen to us if Antibiotics Stop Working

THE WORLD BEFORE THE INVENTION OF ANTIBIOTICS WAS MUCH MORE DANGEROUS. Any infection could lead to death, and complex surgical operations could not be dreamed of. Scientists are increasingly talking about what comes “postantibiotic age” when the most common antibiotics stop working. Bacteria evolve and become immune to drugs. We tell you how it happened and what will happen to humanity next.


Our bodies and the world around us is inhabited by bacteria. Most of them are harmless or useful, but some, pathogenic, cause infections. Before the invention of antibiotics, the human body could only fight infection on its own, with the help of the immune system. Because of this, at the beginning of the XX century life was much more difficult: for example, died three out of ten people infected with pneumonia, and after childbirth did not survive five women out of a thousand. Tuberculosis, whooping cough, gonorrhea and other diseases caused by aggressive bacteria, most often led to death. Let it happen rarely, but you could die, just cut yourself on paper.

Everything changed with the discovery of penicillins-antimicrobials that can defeat certain bacteria. The fungus penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming. It happened almost by accident: he left a Petri dish with Staphylococcus for the night in the laboratory with the window open and in the morning discovered that it had grown fungus. It took more than ten years to make a drug out of the substance: Fleming himself experimented on it, as well as scientists Howard W. Florey and Ernst chain. The drug penicillin, created by Florey and Chan, was the first antibiotic.

“Antibiotic” literally means “against life” – in this case against microorganisms. There are many types of antibiotics: antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and antiparasitic. Some act against many species of organisms, some only against a few. The most common antibiotics are antibacterial. They either stop the reproduction of bacteria to the immune system itself won the remaining, or destroys them directly.

The fact that bacteria could eventually become resistant to antibiotics was already known. Fleming understood that evolution was inevitable and that bacteria would develop: the more we used penicillin, the faster it would happen. He was afraid that unreasonable use would speed up the process. The first penicillin-resistant Staphylococcus bacteria appeared in 1940, even before the drug was mass-produced. In 1945, Fleming said, ” the Imprudent man playing with penicillin treatment is morally responsible for the death of a man who died of a penicillin-resistant infection. I hope this trouble can be avoided.”

How to fight infection before antibiotics

1. Sun rays and ultraviolet lamps were used in the early XX century. Ultraviolet radiation kills cells, and therefore doctors left the patient in the sun or under an ultraviolet lamp in the hope that the bacteria will also kill.

2. Bacteriophages — viruses that attack bacteria, were especially popular in Eastern Europe. Like antibiotics, they are taken orally or applied to the skin. After world war II, Eastern bloc scientists actively studied bacteriophages because they could not import drugs from the United States and Western Europe.

3. The method of treatment with serum invented in the late XIX century, he received the Nobel prize Emil Bering. The serum is made up of antibodies, proteins that find and attack the invading cells. To get the serum, doctors implanted antibodies from the blood of horses and other animals infected with bacteria.


Today, the antibiotic resistance of bacteria, which Fleming warned about, is one of the main problems in medicine and in the world. With the invention of penicillin, humanity has entered a race: we are trying to overtake evolution by discovering new antibiotics while bacteria adapt to the old ones. The antibiotic tetracycline appeared in 1950, the first bacteria with resistance to it-in 1959, Methicillin-in 1960, resistant bacteria-in 1962, Vancomycin-in 1972, and resistant bacteria-in 1988. Daptomycin appeared in 2003, the first signs of resistance to it — already in 2004, and so on. The fact is that bacteria multiply and develop very quickly. A new generation of bacteria appears every 20 minutes, so microorganisms evolve and adapt so quickly to external threats. Moreover, the more often we use an antibiotic, the more chances we give bacteria to develop resistance to them.

Antibiotic resistance has long been talked about. Serious panic swept the scientific community ten years ago with the spread of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus. The first such bacteria appeared in the 60s, but then there was only a small proportion. Gradually MRSA (so called this bacterium, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) began to spread. In 1974, 2 % of infected with Staphylococcus in the United States were resistant to methicillin, in 1995-22 %, in 2007 — already 63 %. Now every year in America, 19 thousand people die from MRSA.

Antibiotic resistance is now beginning to take on a truly apocalyptic scale. We use them all as much — and almost ceased to open new ones. The development of a new antibiotic costs about 1 million dollars, and pharmaceutical companies stopped doing it — unprofitable. There are no new types of antibiotics, we use the old ones, and resistance to them is growing. Moreover, so-called pan-resistant microorganisms, resistant to several types of antibiotics, and sometimes to all, began to appear.

In 2009, one of the patients at St. Vincent’s hospital in new York became infected after surgery with an infection caused by the bacterium Klebsiella pneumoniae. The bacterium was resistant to all antibiotics. He died 14 days after the infection. The British government has launched a project to predict antibiotic resistance: scientists believe that if the situation develops in the same way as today, by 2050, 10 million people a year will die because of resistant bacteria.

The saddest thing is that humanity is to blame for this itself. We were extremely sloppy with antibiotics. Most people don’t understand how antibiotic resistance works and how it should be used. We are constantly treated with them, when it is not necessary. There are many countries where antibiotics can still be bought at a pharmacy without a prescription. Even in Russia, where they are officially sold only on prescription, you can freely buy many of the 30 types of antibiotics available on the market. In the US, 50% of antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily in hospitals. 45 % of doctors in the UK prescribe antibiotics even when they know they won’t work. Finally, animals: 80 % of the antibiotics sold in the US are used not on humans, but on animals to accelerate their growth, make them thicker, and protect them from disease. As a result, bacteria resistant to these antibiotics spread to humans through animal meat.

One of the latest news about antibiotic resistance is related to drugs used in animals and plants. In China, bacteria were found to be resistant to a group of polymyxins, specifically to the antibiotic colistin. In the treatment of colistin is used as a drug “last chance”, that is, they treat the patient when no other drugs are no longer valid. But resistance in China was found in other circumstances: they used colistin on pigs.

700 THOUSAND PEOPLE per year die because of bacteria resistant to antibiotics…

How we use antibiotics today

1. Any complex surgery is not without antibiotics. Especially they are needed for organ transplantation: lungs, heart, kidneys and liver. To prevent the body from rejecting the transplanted organ, patients take antibiotics that temporarily restrain immunity.

2. Farmers use antibiotics on plants and animals. Animals they make thicker and make them grow faster. In Asia, antibiotics are regularly used to grow fish and shrimp to protect them from bacteria that spread in the water.

3. Antibiotics still play a key role in the treatment of infections: from blood infection to sepsis, pneumonia, dentistry and so on.


What does the future look like without antibiotics? What we lose? You can add up everything that is in this text above: we will not be able to treat infectious diseases. Childbirth will become dangerous again. We can’t transplant organs. We will not be able to treat cancer: modern cancer treatments like chemotherapy rely heavily on antibiotics to restrain human immunity. Any injury will be dangerous, potentially fatal-it does not matter whether you were in a car accident or just fell down the stairs. You will have to live much more carefully and watch your every step. We will lose most of the cheap food in the world: meat, fish, fruit will become much more difficult to produce and, as a result, more expensive.

But some scientists believe that we have hope. Antibiotic resistance in bacteria does not go unnoticed. They develop additional genes that cost them advantages over other non — resistant bacteria of the same species. If we don’t attack them with an antibiotic, the bacteria without resistance will multiply faster, and the bacteria with resistance will die out. If you alternate antibiotics, they will work more effectively. For example, we use several years of one type of antibiotics, and then when the bacteria appears the tolerance, switch to another.

Others, however, believe that there is no hope. We have already lost the war against sustainability — and a future without antibiotics is inevitable. We can only slow his arrival to find alternatives to antibiotics in all areas. This requires slowing the spread of antibiotic resistance. First, there should be restrictions on the use of antibiotics in agriculture. First of all, this applies to the United States: in many countries such restrictions are already in force (for example, in Holland, Denmark and Norway bans on the use of antibiotics are very strict), in America they are afraid to tighten control. Secondly, it is necessary to create conditions under which pharmaceutical companies will again be engaged in the study of new antibiotics. For example, make drug patents last longer, or reduce the requirements for clinical trials.

One way or another, all this will only delay the inevitable, but humanity is ready to develop. Just a hundred years ago, we lived without penicillin and antibiotics-and discovered them. Now scientists are looking for the most incredible alternatives to antibiotics from the use of predatory microbes to microscopic doses of metals, which have long been known to cope with microorganisms. Perhaps by 2050 there will be something that will completely eliminate the need for antibiotics.

What alternatives to antibiotics may appear

1. CRISPR technology can be used against bacteria: scientists turn the protective system of the bacteria against
them and cause them to self-destruct.

2. Predatory bacteria. Some bacteria can help fight infection because they feed on other bacteria. One such species, Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus, is found in soil. Organisms of this species are attached to other bacteria and multiply with their help, destroying the victim.

3. Antimicrobial peptide. Many organisms — from plants and animals to fungi — produce peptides, molecules that kill bacteria. Amphibian and reptile peptides, which are particularly well protected against infections, can help create new drugs.

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