TV3. 30 minuts: ‘The end of antibiotics’

Why are antibiotics no longer effective? How come superbugs have become so strong? The misuse and abuse of antibiotics has led bacteria to learn to defend themselves and become resistant. In 2050 there could be more deaths from «superbugs» than from cancer.

Ramón Morales was 31 years old when he died infected with one of the most dangerous hospital bacteria in the world. He had just been admitted to Reina Sofía Hospital in Córdoba for a thrombus in his leg. He was dead a month later. «In four days the bacteria ate him inside, kidney, liver, heart … everything. The doctors were lost,» explains his mother, Pilar. In cases such as Ramón’s, there are 2,500 in Spain every year. But if drastic measures are not taken in the consumption of antibiotics, by 2050 this figure could be multiplied by thirty, due to the death toll from cancer.

The problem arises from the fact that antibiotics are no longer effective. At least to treat certain diseases. These are what are now known as «superbacteria», bacteria that have become resistant to most antibiotics. There is nothing we can do with them. «7-8 years ago, in the hospital, we could treat multi-resistant infections with simple drugs. Now we have to treat them with last-minute antibiotics, antibiotics that are toxic,» says the infectologist and head of the laboratory. Vall d’Hebron research, Joan Gavaldà.

The question many people ask is, how come these bacteria have become so strong? Mainly because since the 1950s, when antibiotics began to be used en masse, it has been abused. And the more they are used, the more resistant the bacteria become.

The abuse has been committed in human medicine, because doctors often prescribe antibiotics just in case. Many people also self-medicate and are thought to cure the common cold. Some pharmacies still sell them over-the-counter and many people mistakenly stop treatment early because they are already well. It is also abused in animal medicine. Spain is the European country that uses the most antibiotics per kilo of meat. Many ranchers add them to their animals’ feed and water to ensure that if one is sick, the rest will remain healthy.

Meanwhile, large pharmaceutical companies abandoned research into new antibiotics decades ago. They found no new substances and the investment was too high for the expected income. It is more profitable to find a new remedy for hypertension, which will be taken for life, than to find a new antibiotic that will be used for a very few days.

The current picture is what some doctors already call the «perfect storm.» This is a situation that governments and international agencies have been paying close attention to. The alarm that is being sounded from the health sector is understandable, because without antibiotics, surgery and modern medicine would not be possible. A threat now more and more real.