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What Do We Do When Antibiotics Don’t Work Anymore? (My TED Talk)

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.

3 thoughts on “What Do We Do When Antibiotics Don’t Work Anymore? (My TED Talk)

  1. I’ve thought for some time that the decline of antibiotics due to overuse was a more serious problem than climate change, war, terrorism, and the other usual suspects. I’m glad someone is trying to call attention to it. But as usual, those in charge are dragging their feet.

  2. I underwent an intensive 9-week course of chemotherapy 2 years ago, and was given bleomycin once a week throughout because the cisplatin and etopicide weakened my immune system. The worry that I and my family went through as I went through the treatment…I can’t imagine adding to that the additional worry of infection and all of the preventive measures that we would have needed to take, on top of all of the other measures my family took to help me during that time. I also can’t imagine how we would have felt having to rely for our only hope on a treatment that could easily have enabled a fatal infection. (We never considered, of course, any of the quack cancer treatments, but I wonder now whether more patients will try them when antibiotics for science-based cancer treatments become less effective.)
    Thank you for your efforts to educate the public about the problem of anti-biotic resistance and about possible ways of defeating it (or at least continuing the competition between bacteria and ourselves). Your TED talk is the most compelling and well-presented I’ve seen.

    MM: Thank you for the kind words and for relating your story. I’m glad you’re better.

  3. Hi, this was a fantastic tedtalk. I want to say I enjoyed it but to be honest it makes me worried.
    I saw a 2009 talk by bonnie bassler on quorum sensing and after your talk had a read about and have seen there are some other alternatives in the making. For example antimicrobial peptides and gene-editing enzymes, but none of these are gaurenteed to be the alternative
    – how far away are we from reaching an alternative or does noone know ?
    – is your cry for change more of a prevention or is it because at this rate, there doesn’t seem to be an alternative being produced before the post-antibiotic era hits us and therefore, we need to slow this process as much as possible to increase the chances of an alternative being found
    – why is the governments and media’s interest elsewhere. Is it because they only raise issues that will have an impact 50 years down the line in 40 years time because they only focus on immediate issues ? Or is there another reason their interest and investments lie elsewhere.

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