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Are You Ready For A World Without Antibiotics?

Just 65 years ago, David Livermore’s paternal grandmother died following an operation to remove her appendix. It didn’t go well, but it was not the surgery that killed her. She succumbed to a series of infections that the pre-penicillin world had no drugs to treat. Welcome to the future.

The era of antibiotics is coming to a close. In just a couple of generations, what once appeared to be miracle medicines have been beaten into ineffectiveness by the bacteria they were designed to knock out. Once, scientists hailed the end of infectious diseases. Now, the post-antibiotic apocalypse is within sight.

Hyperbole? Unfortunately not. The highly serious journal Lancet Infectious Diseases yesterday posed the question itself over a paper revealing the rapid spread of multi-drug-resistant bacteria. “Is this the end of antibiotics?” it asked.

Doctors and scientists have not been complacent, but the paper by Professor Tim Walsh and colleagues takes the anxiety to a new level. Last September, Walsh published details of a gene he had discovered, called NDM 1, which passes easily between types of bacteria called enterobacteriaceae such as E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae and makes them resistant to almost all of the powerful, last-line group of antibiotics called carbapenems. Yesterday’s paper revealed that NDM 1 is widespread in India and has arrived here as a result of global travel and medical tourism for, among other things, transplants, pregnancy care and cosmetic surgery.

“In many ways, this is it,” Walsh tells me. “This is potentially the end. There are no antibiotics in the pipeline that have activity against NDM 1-producing enterobacteriaceae. We have a bleak window of maybe 10 years, where we are going to have to use the antibiotics we have very wisely, but also grapple with the reality that we have nothing to treat these infections with.”

And this is the optimistic view