Remapping Debate has a very, very sobering piece on antibiotic resistance, and what it means for the future of health care. Two graphs sum up the problem. The first shows the rise of antibiotic resistance in various common infections.
- Without antibiotics, there would be very little elective surgery. Before sulfa drugs, surgery was a very serious business with a high risk that a patient might die of some complicating infection.
- Without antibiotics, forget organ transplants. The immune suppression would almost certainly be fatal in a pretty short time period. HIV would also be more dangerous.
- Without antibiotics, retirements would get shorter again. Before antibiotics, the average 60 year old who caught pneumonia was more likely than not to die of it than not. That's why they used to call pneumonia the "old man's friend". Nor is pneumonia the only potential killer.
- Without antibiotics, maternal mortality would be a lot higher. So would mortality from abortions, dramatically. While backalley abortions were horrible, and did kill people up until legalization, the theatrical figures thrown around by the pro-choice movement were mostly due to the lack of antibiotics, not the butchery of the freelance abortionists. Between 1936 and 1960, the number of deaths from abortions seems to have fallen by something between 80-95%. Looking strictly at mortality, you'd probably be much better off getting an illegal abortion with antibiotics than a legal one without.
- Neonates would also be much more likely to succumb to infection, since their immune systems are underdeveloped.
- Chronic infections can lead to various sorts of cancer (H. Pylori, the bacteria that causes ulcers, also causes stomach cancer). These would take more people before they got Alzheimer's.
- The severely disabled would have much shorter life spans. Without antibiotics, there would be no way to treat the bed sores, or the lung and urinary tract infections that are common for people with limited sensation or mobility.
- Strep and its evil cousins, scarlet and rheumatic fevers, would once again be a major killer and disabler of children.
Oh, it gets even more depressing. You haven't even mentioned tuberculosis; the susceptible bacteria is hard enough to treat (6 months of three or four antibiotics). Now imagine multidrug resistant (MDR) or extensively drug resistant (XDR) bacteria. There are now even strains that are resistant against every anti-tuberculous antibiotic out there.From the Wikipedia entry on TB:
One-third of the world's current population has been infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and new infections occur at a rate of one per second. About 5-10% of these latent infections will eventually progress to active disease, which, if left untreated, kills more than half of its victims. Annually, 8 million people become ill with tuberculosis, and 2 million people die from the disease worldwide. In the 19th century, tuberculosis killed an estimated one-quarter of the adult population of Europe; and by 1918 one in six deaths in France were still caused by TB. By the late 19th century, 70 to 90% of the urban populations of Europe and North America were infected with M. tuberculosis, and about 40% of working-class deaths in cities were from TB. During the 20th century, tuberculosis killed approximately 100 million people. TB is still one of the most important health problems in the developing world.