03/01/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 04/30/2014 05:59 EDT

Bacteria getting upper hand in antibiotics arms race

We’re accustomed to hearing our era referred to as the Space Age, the Information Age or the Digital Age. It could just as easily be called the Antibiotic Age.

Very few advances in the 20th Century so utterly changed life — and improved quality of life — the way Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin did in 1928.

Antibiotics revolutionized medicine and the world. Bacterial infections, from gonorrhea to pneumonia, could be treated swiftly. An infected cut on a finger was no longer life-threatening. A host of medical treatments and surgeries became possible.

Fleming knew that bacteria would eventually develop resistance to penicillin. Bacteria’s phenomenally fast rates of reproduction means it can evolve very rapidly, putting the long-term effectiveness of any antibiotic at risk.

He also foresaw that penicillin could be misused and misapplied, and that could speed up the development of antibiotic resistance. That’s exactly what’s happened.

For decades, antibiotics have been over-prescribed and misused, both in medicine and in livestock production.

The result is that many of the antibiotics that modern medicine have relied upon for so long have been rendered useless. Antibiotic-resistant superbugs like MRSA, c. difficile and CRE now lurk in hospital rooms and kill patients who have undergone medical procedures that would have otherwise saved or improved their lives.

Arms race

For the entire history of antibiotics, there’s been an arms race of sorts between bacteria and medicine. Bacteria have developed resistance to one drug, and medicine has responded by producing new antibiotics. Bacteria develop resistance to the new ones, and medicine devises even newer antibiotics, and so on.

What’s different now is that pharmaceutical companies have shown little interest in developing new, more powerful antibiotics, which tend to be rather unprofitable. So there aren’t a lot of new drugs waiting in the wings to join the battle against infection.

In fact, a lot of medical and public health experts now fear that we’re on the cusp of an unsettling new age … the Post-antibiotic Age. 

Some doctors have told science journalist Maryn McKenna that for some infections, we’re already there. Physicians have said to her, "‘We’re already seeing people for whom we have nothing. We have to tell their families that we have nothing that we can do for this person with this kind of infection.’”

McKenna, an award-winning science journalist specializing in public health issues, spoke with The Sunday Edition’s guest host Helen Mann and painted a grim picture of what a post-antibiotic age would mean.

“It’s really extraordinary how much antibiotics underpin our modern lives and we don’t think about it. We have lots of things in medicine now that rely on immune-suppressant drugs - cancer chemotheraphy, organ transplants. Anyone who is in a state of immune suppression is much more vulnerable to infections, and we use antibiotics to keep those at bay. If antibiotics go, then things like cancer treatment become much more difficult.

“Infections in surgery will become much more common. There was an analysis published recently in the British Medical Journal about what the lack of antibiotics would do to some major procedures. They estimated that one in six hip replacements would result in death.

“Childbirth becomes dangerous. Any kind of injury becomes dangerous.”

You can hear Helen Mann’s entire interview with Maryn McKenna on CBC Radio One just after the 9 am news on CBC radio on Sunday, or in the player at the top-left of this page.