The Washington Post

Our medicines are failing

Remapping debate has a scary piece on the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections, and the decline in new antibiotics capable of staying a step ahead of them.

“Ellen Silbergeld, professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the majority of new infectious diseases that have emerged in the past 40 years are caused by drug-resistant bacteria. ‘E. coli is not new, salmonella is not new, staph is not new,’ Silbergeld said. ‘But what is new are strains of these old pathogens that are now resistant to almost all classes of drugs that we can throw at them. It’s a return of our old enemies in an untreatable form.’

“The general public has a mistaken sense that there will always be options when an infectious disease does not initially respond to treatments — that doctors will somehow just raise the level of drugs, switch to a different drug, or try a combination of drugs if one doesn’t work. But the classes of antibiotics are limited, and new classes aren’t being developed.”

Megan McArdle is very alarmed, and makes some broader points about the way in which a lot of what we take for granted in medicine — like surgery — would collapse if we really lost control of bacterial infections. I’d also note that a world in which antibiotic-resistant diseases best our medicines is not a world in which health-care costs are coming down anytime soon. As always, both the cost and the quality of the health-care system are ultimately driven by how many people end up sick and how much it costs to treat them. This is the sort of thing that policymakers should be much more worried about.


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