The End of Antibiotics

615px-Richard I of England - Palace of Westminster - 24042004 - Version 2

King Richard I, ‘The Lionheart’, died in April 1199 when he received a crossbow bolt wound to his left shoulder whilst walking the castle walls without his chainmail.

It wasn't a bad wound and these days we'd clean it and dress it and put him on a course of antibiotics. He'd have been as right as rain in no time.

But Richard died in his mother’s arms ten days later. The warrior king, seen here in the famous statue outside the Houses of Parliament in London, was brought down by microscopic organisms that we barely give a second thought to.

Richard's wound allowed bacteria through the skin's protective layer, and once inside they multiplied until infection raged through his body, causing fever and gangrene and ultimately killing him.

His fate was not unusual. Before the discovery of penicillin, any wound could lead to infection, fever and death. Not all wounds did, of course, but the possibility was always there. Even a minor scratch could lead to death if you were unlucky.

I was born just after the war so I’ve spent my entire life in a world in which infections can be treated swiftly with antibiotics. Unless you’re older than me, you too have never known a world without antibiotics. Cuts and grazes are very rarely a problem and even major wounds and surgery are generally not life-threatening. We’ve become blasé to the risks.

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But the time has come to wake up - and it’s becoming urgent.

We are now approaching a post-antibiotic world and this should frighten us all into immediate action. The fact that it isn’t bothering us too much is testament to the way we humans have an almost infinite capacity to ignore the blindingly obvious until it's almost too late. I say "almost" because we also have the ability to find creative solutions to impossible-seeming problems - but we only do it when we reach the brink.

The brink is nearer than you think and if we want to avoid plunging our children back into a world where small cuts can kill them we need to start acting now.

The UK government has already announced a research programme to find alternatives to antibiotics but this is not enough. It is actually a warning shot at the beginning of a battle for survival. Will you pay heed to it or are you still sleep-walking into a post-antibiotic world?

The film below - a TED Talk given by Maryn McKenna - explains everything you need to know. Watch it and you will understand. Don’t put it off - our children’s futures are at stake. 


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© Brian Smith 2015