“In too many cases antibiotics have stopped working. … If we do nothing about this …, it is potentially the end of modern medicine as we know it.”
— British Prime Minister David Cameron, May 27
“The end of modern medicine as we know it” is a scary phrase coming from a respected world leader. We hope Cameron is exaggerating for effect, but we also hope his sense of urgency to develop powerful new antibiotics is, well, infectious. Developing more potent antibiotics is vital to vanquish a fast-encroaching army of superbugs — bacteria that have become resistant to current antibiotics.
Recent bad news: The superbugs have invaded America. Researchers discovered a Pennsylvania woman infected by a superbug, a “nightmare bacteria” resistant even to colistin, the antibiotic of last resort. That’s the first time this super-resistant strain has appeared in the U.S.
How dangerous could this resistance be? Very. “It basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics — that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive-care units or patients getting urinary tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics,” warned Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most Americans don’t remember a time before antibiotics. You wouldn’t want to live in that world again. Without effective antibiotics, women die in childbirth from sepsis. People who get a scrape or insect bite can develop fatal infections. Sore throats can bring rheumatic fever and heart failure. Surgeries pose greater threats.
The Obama administration says superbugs pose a national security threat. Left unchecked, superbugs could kill more people than cancer worldwide by 2050, a British task force has warned.
Last March, the White House issued a “national action plan” to combat superbugs. But Washington can’t do this alone. What’s needed is an aggressive worldwide response to develop new antibiotics and eradicate indiscriminate use of the current crop. That effort must include major antibiotic users and producers such as India and China.
One key: Discouraging doctors and hospitals from dispensing antibiotics without strong cause. Doctors can’t cave to patients who demand antibiotics even if they likely won’t help. As many as one-third of U.S. prescriptions for antibiotics are inappropriate, a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates.
A potential battleground: U.S. farmers and ranchers often use antibiotics not to cure diseases but to promote faster growth of livestock. The European Union has banned such use, and the White House plan to combat superbugs sets a five-year goal to do the same. Food retailers such as McDonald’s also are moving in this direction.
Another idea: Create incentives for drug companies to develop potent next-generation antibiotics. That British task force recommends rewards of up to $1.5 billion. Such incentives could pay huge dividends. Encouraging companies makes sense not only because hurry-up research would be especially expensive and the likelihood of success highly uncertain. Any new drugs would be used sparingly so that patients wouldn’t develop resistance. That would cut potential sales but increase health worldwide.
Sounds like a great project for a major charitable foundation looking to save lives worldwide and, in the bargain, build a legacy as superbug slayers.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE