This week’s TED talk is “What Do We Do When Antibiotics Don’t Work Anymore” by Maryn McKenna, author of the MRSA warning SUPERBUG (Amazon link) and public health, global health and food policy advisor for National Geographic, Scientific American and Slate magazine, who addresses the TED crowd on the topic of antibiotics, opening with a personal and chilling tale of her great-uncle’s death due to “blood poisoning” after a routine workplace accident – or in modern terms, a common bacterial infection.
Infections, which were a death sentence until 1943, were something you recovered from in days thanks to pennicllin. McKenna warns that we stand at the end of the end of the golden epoch when antibiotics could cure these infections. “For 70 years, we played a game of leapfrog -our drug and their resistance,“ This arms race has led many drug companies to stop trying to developing antibiotics. 50,000 people per year now die from microbial-resistant infections.
McKenna’s sobering dive into what the loss of antibiotics would lead to – the end of AIDS care, the end of most surgeries, the death of one percent of mothers in childbirth. She correctly identifies the culprit – man’s heedless use of antibiotics in almost every nation, and its overdiagnosis in people, and the use of it in meat production, especially factory-farmed meat where 80% of all antibiotics sold are pumped into feed animals to stave off the infections they regularly receive from their deplorable living conditions. This would likely mean the end of cheap meat in general and a return to meat being a special treat for most of the world, a painful cut that nonetheless is only the first step to surviving a post-antibiotic world.
The solution, in McKenna’s vision, is more awards and grants to develop new antibiotics for pharmaceutical companies, as well as a tracking system and Big Data to track and restrict drug usage, especially overpresciption and the painful choice to give it up in feed animal use. We need to give up antibiotics, the same way we gave up smoking in public buildings or riding motorcycles without a helmet – because it just isn’t good for us.
The antibiotic-reduced world we need to live in will be difficult, but it is vital, McKenna argues, to prevent all of humanity from living in a post-antibacterial world. We’ve spent 70 years walking ourselves up to this ledge, and we need solutions now, a mixture of Big Data and public willpower, to keep us from jumping off, because we won’t get 70 more years to devise a solution.
“The thoughtless person playing with penicillin treatment is morally responsible for the death of a man who succumbs to infection with a pencillin-resistant organism.” Alexander Fleming, the creator of Penicillin saidd in 1945, shortly after receiving the Nobel prize for its discovery, “I hope this evil can be averted.”