As I write this, this news isn’t being widely reported. A bacteria has been found in the United States that is resistant to the last antibiotic left in the arsenal. There is now no longer any antibiotic available that bacteria can’t survive. This is certainly bad news – though not unexpected bad news. Resistance to antibiotics has been a problem since antibiotics came into use. The more widely antibiotics are used, the bigger the problem becomes. While this is an unpleasant milestone to pass, it doesn’t actually mean that the problem is suddenly bigger than it was. The laws of natural selection are hard to dodge, and bacteria have many tricks up their sleeves to defend themselves.
The good news is that we still have quite a few cards up our sleeves. There remain plenty of tactics that we can still use. One option is to simply declare a moratorium on the use of particular antibiotics for periods of time. After a few years of being out of circulation the genes that code for the resistance will start to diminish in the bacterial population. Novel cocktails of antibiotics might be effective. And there is still the prospect of new antibiotics being developed and deployed. This has slowed down in recent years but technology changes all the time and there is every chance some innovation is around the corner that will extend the range of treatment options.
In the meantime there is also the fact that we know a lot more about hygiene and there are lots of ways of beating the bacteria before they cause illness in the first place. I have argued before that we should be careful about using potentially useful antibacterial agents like triclosan too widely in cosmetic products. Triclosan is not suitable as an antibiotic for treating people who are infected, but it is certainly a handy option for disinfecting hospitals and other medical facilities. It seems to me a bit irresponsible to let people use it in their homes and for cosmetic purposes on their bodies. It might have some benefits for those uses, but all the time it is out there it is encouraging the growth of resistance to itself. It would be much more sensible to keep it for where we really need it.
But it will be interesting to see if the mainstream press turn this into a scare story. The reality is that the world is a tough place. Antibiotics are one of our tools, but like all tools they are not perfect and won’t work if we aren’t careful. We don’t face the prospect of being totally defenceless against bacteria, just not being as well defended as we would ideally like. Most of the people I know are grown up enough to accept that. I wonder if journalists will see it that way?