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"Flu and Faith." Photo: © 2009 Mike Licht. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Can We Live Without Antibiotics?

Scientists are hard at work locating new antibiotics to fight drug-resistant infections, but it’s too late for many—and will likely be too late for many more before the next generation of antibiotics are widely available. It’s very possible that in between today’s era of mostly-effective traditional antibiotics and future generations of mostly-effective new remedies, there will be at least a decade or two when the bacteria will have outrun us. What would that world look like?

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Photo: Janice Carr / CDC.

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Photo: Janice Carr / CDC.

A beautifully-written (and jarring) piece by Medium’s Maryn McKenna asks the question, and answers it as well as anyone probably can. With antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as with so many things in life, what we look at is not so much binary possibilities of guaranteed safety and guaranteed doom. Instead, we’re looking at a spectrum of escalating stress, inconvenience, and risk as we attempt to manage a more dangerous future—with mixed success:

“Right now, if you want to be a sharp-looking hipster and get a tattoo, you’re not putting your life on the line,” says the CDC’s [Michael] Bell. “Botox injections, liposuction, those become possibly life-threatening. Even driving to work: We rely on antibiotics to make a major accident something we can get through, as opposed to a death sentence.”

This is something we don’t often recognize when we look at existential threats. Judging by past history, an asteroid impact wouldn’t kill us all; it would kill many of us and leave the rest of us straggling along towards a new Stone Age and, perhaps, eventual extinction thousands of years later. Unchecked climate change probably won’t make the Earth uninhabitable for all humans; just the few billion of us who live closest to equatorial regions, transforming the world into a very sad and violent place (even by human standards). And so on.

Maybe with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and with some of these other threats, we should be asking not whether we as a species can survive these threats, but whether we want to pay an unbearably high price—in terms of lives lost, lives destroyed, and lives simply made miserable—to do so. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria almost certainly won’t wipe out humanity. But if it stands to wipe out a large number of us and leave the rest of us in an unhappy state, isn’t that an outcome we ought to prevent?

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