The antibiotic era isn’t actually very old. It begins, depending on how picky you are, with Alexander Fleming’s accidental recognition of the mold that makes penicillin. the first antibiotic, in 1928; or perhaps with the first human test of penicillin, in 1941; but definitely by 1944, when manufacturers were able to make enough that the drug could be sold in pharmacies.
Whatever date you choose as the beginning of the antibiotic era, there’s another one you have to take into consideration: the date when the antibiotic era will end.
We don’t know when that will be. But it’s possible that it isn’t far away.
Antibiotic resistance—disease bacteria’s facility in developing defenses against compounds that would kill them—has always existed; the first resistance against penicillin appeared before the drug even reached the market. But the ways we have chosen to over-use and mis-use antibiotics, in medicine and in agriculture, have accelerated the emergence of resistance beyond what we can combat. And because of that acceleration, pharmaceutical companies have mostly backed away from making new antibiotics, arguing—reasonably, from their point of view—that the drugs no longer make economic sense.
Because of those intertwined phenomena, we’re now in a situation that is unique in human history: illnesses and deaths from infectious disease are rising again. Whether it’s resistant Klebsiella, KPC, spreading east across the planet from the United States; or NDM-carrying E. coli moving West from India; or totally drug-resistant TB popping up unpredictably in the Near East; or “pig MRSA” and highly resistant foodborne illness emerging from agriculture—the bugs are on the ascent. And we have a limited window of time in which to block their advance.
In March, I gave a TED Talk (at mainstage TED, in Vancouver, BC) explaining this under-acknowledged threat and exploring what we can do right now—in healthcare and farming, in tech and innovation and in our everyday lives—to turn the trend around. It’s just gone live. I hope you enjoy it.