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Averting the antibiotics apocalypse now (op-ed)

IF YOU'RE reading this article, antibiotics have probably saved your life – and not once but several times. A rotten tooth, a knee operation, a brush with pneumonia; any number of minor infections that never turned nasty. You may not even remember taking the pills, so unremarkable have these one-time wonder drugs become.

Modern medicine relies on antibiotics – not just to cure diseases, but to augment the success of surgery, childbirth and cancer treatments. Yet now health authorities are warning, in uncharacteristically apocalyptic terms, that the era of antibiotics is about to end (see "Antibiotic resistance an 'apocalyptic threat'"). In some ways, it has been this way ever since antibiotics became widely available in the 1940s, because bacteria are continually evolving to resist the drugs. But in the past we've always developed new ones that killed them again.

Not this time. Infections that once succumbed to everyday antibiotics now require last-resort drugs with unpleasant side effects. Others have become so dificult to treat that they kill some 25,000 Europeans yearly. And some bacteria now resist every known antibiotic.

Regular readers will know why: New Scientist has reported warnings about this for years. We have misused antibiotics appallingly, handing them out to humans like medicinal candy and feeding them to livestock by the tonne, mostly not for health reasons but to make meat cheaper (New Scientist, 31 March 2012, p 5). Now antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be found all over the world – not just in medical facilities, but everywhere from muddy puddles in India to the snows of Antarctica.

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