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The Revenge of the Microbes

Updated: May 18, 2020

“Common diseases are becoming untreatable”. That’s a gist of the World Health Organization report on drug resistance. Although the coronavirus pandemic seems to be the biggest problem on our hands, the road to the future of medicine is paved with obstacles and uncertainty. Without quick action, the threat of drug resistance could kill ten million people a year by 2050.

Drug resistance is what occurs when we overuse antibiotics and antivirals in human, animal, and plant treatments. This can have amazing, even life-saving effects — for a short period of time, when a new drug is introduced. But the pathogen then learns to adapt and evolves. The drug gradually becomes less effective, and we are left with a disease we don't know how to cure. Antibiotic resistance is expected to have unsurmountable impacts on the economic, social and political spheres.

For over seventy years, we’ve played a game of leapfrog: our drug, their resistance. And now, the game is ending. Bacteria are developing resistance so quickly that multiple pharmaceutical companies are stopping antibiotic production because it’s not in their best interest. Common problems such as STDs and urinary tract infections are also becoming more resistant to treatment. Any and all surgical procedures such as C-sections and transplants could become more dangerous to perform since the risk associated with infection increases.

On much of the planet, most meat animals get antibiotics every single day of their life. This is not cure illnesses, but to fatten them up and protect them from the factory farm conditions they are raised in.

Although it is unfathomable, in the future, lockdowns are going to become common. Lockdowns are going to severely affect politics because of the sheer amount of money governments will have to borrow to keep the economy running. This is likely to lead to catastrophic impacts, since governments need to make hard decisions that can further destabilize or reinforce their authority. Why will lockdowns become more common?

It is because of the R-Naught (R0) of these common diseases. R-Naught refers to the reproductive rate of the pathogen, or in simple terms, how contagious a disease is. The R0 of the coronavirus is roughly around 2 to 2.5. This means that each new person spreads the disease to 2 people. Common bacterial infections such as tuberculosis have a staggering R0 of 10. TB is one of the diseases that shows the highest cases in drug resistance.

Moreover, unlike climate change, this is a matter on which there is both scientific and political consensus — it's not as if the right and the left disagree as to whether the problem is real.

Therefore, drug resistance poses a colossal threat to global health and creates high economic costs for society. Economic evaluations of antimicrobials and interventions such as diagnostics and vaccines that affect their consumption rarely include the costs of drug resistance, resulting in sub-optimal policy recommendations. It is the need of the hour for us to take action, and we cannot wait until the death toll rises.

Author : Ritvik Sai Narayan

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