Life after Antibiotics

The spread of bacteria resistant to antibiotics is a threat to mankind, comparable in scale to climate change. Solving it without international consensus will also be impossible.

In November, the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases reported a discovery made by Chinese microbiologist I-Yun Liu and his colleagues from the South China University of Agronomy in Guangzhou. The scientists discovered a new gene: MCR1, which is responsible for the resistance of pathogenic bacteria to colistin, an antibiotic of the latest generation from the polyximins class, related to antibacterials known as the ‘last resort.’ They are used when other means are already unable to destroy dangerous microorganisms. First, MCR1 was found in samples of meat and pets’ blood, taken in 2011-2014 in southern China, and then in humans: The gene was traced in 16 of 1,322 urine and blood samples of patients at local hospitals.

In December, the presence of MCR1 in humans was confirmed in Denmark, upon the results of a bacterial DNA database screening, done by microbiologist Frank Arestrup from Danish Technical University, who got infected through blood in 2015. At the same time, it was confirmed that it contained a gene that was also found in five samples of poultry meat, imported from Germany in 2012-2014, and had the same ‘Chinese’ origin. Moreover, it turned out that all of the identified bacteria possessed genes that protect them not only from colistin, but also from other antibiotics, including penicillin and cephalosporin groups.

What this means is that we have obtained hard evidence for the first time of what humankind has long suspected. Namely, that bacteria – acting as agents for a number of dangerous human infections, which may cause blood poisoning, dangerous inflammation of the urogenital and digestive systems that we could previously cure with a help of predictable set of available antibacterial agents – can now become completely immune to the effects of antibiotics. In fact, we are talking about the case when the dark prophecy of the imminent sunset of ‘the century of antibiotics,’ achieved by the invention of penicillin by Alexander Fleming, could come true.

Scientists and doctors warned about this effect for many years: The invention of new antibiotics chronically lags behind the rapid spread of drug-resistant forms of infectious diseases, not least due to ignorance and uncontrolled use of antibiotics. This applies to treatment of patients and animals – where, for example, lightheaded local farmers in the south of China, in the pursuit of profits, stuffed chickens and pigs, grown for sale, with colistin. Globalization leaves no chance for any inhabitant of the planet to feel completely safe from this deadly – in the truest sense of the word – threat.

Its scope is not less than the problem of global warming, to the fight against which the international community devoted the recent 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. To answer the question of how to live without antibiotics – or how to escape such a situation – will require all of mankind to unite their efforts.

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