The ability of antibiotics to save us from deadly infections is being threatened on two fronts. And it is in the personal interest of every human being on the planet that the effectiveness of these drugs be defended from both major threats.
One factor undermining these foundations of modern medicine is a result of doing too much.
Antibiotics that should be reserved for use on people and animals who are not only really sick, but suffering from maladies that antibiotics can really cure, have for many years been flooding our bodies and our food production chain. The result is the Darwinian certainty that the germs that enter our bodies in various ways will evolve into resistant strains that are immune to the chemical soup they were born in. Thus, things like sore throats and cut knees, which once were mere annoyances, can literally turn deadly.
The other threat is a result of the pharmaceutical industry doing too little. As outlined in a recent report by University of Utah scientists, funded by the charitable Pew Health Group, Big Pharma has basically abandoned the process of developing, testing and marketing new classes of antibiotics.
From a pure business perspective, the study says, that makes sense. Not only is developing a new drug a very expensive process one that produces its share of dry holes but the real profit for drug makers, apparently, is not found in making medicines that people take for a week or two. So most private-sector funding is being directed into drugs that people take, and pay for, over a lifetime, drugs that treat chronic ills such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
The Food and Drug Administration is taking tentative steps toward reducing the overuse of antibiotics, especially drenching healthy cows, pigs and chickens with antibiotics because it is thought to promote rapid growth and perhaps fight off the kind of infections that might result from the filthy conditions most modern livestock is raised in. Too many of the changes are still voluntary, but it's a start.
Meanwhile, medical experts are promoting a proposed act of Congress called the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now Act. Co-sponsored by Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch, the bill would give drug makers another five years of exclusive rights to newly developed antibiotics as a financial incentive to keep the pipeline of new treatments active, and one step ahead of the natural and unnatural evolution of once-placid bacteria into new generations of deadly superbugs.
Without such actions, the World Health Organization is already warning of life in a "post-antibiotic era." That's not a time when any of us would want to live.