It's hard to overestimate the importance of antibiotics. These drugs have literally been one of the cornerstones of modern civilization, minimizing deaths from all kinds of common infections, and saving society countless amounts of time and money.
And now—because we've used them too much—they're no longer working. As a new report puts it, we're entering a "post-antibiotic era."
Here's what that means in practice:
...infections are harder or impossible to control; the risk of the spread of infection to others is increased; illness and hospital stays are prolonged, with added economic and social costs; and the risk of death is greater—in some cases, twice that of patients who have infections caused by non-resistant bacteria.
In other words: not at all good. "The problem is so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine," the report from the World Health Organization continues. "A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—is a very real possibility for the 21st century."
The report is the first to survey the global extent of the problem. In all regions, it finds "very high rates of resistance" in bacteria that cause urinary tract infections and pneumonia. For example, fluoroquinolones, which used to be prescribed for E. coli-related infections, are no longer effective in "more than half of patients" in many parts of the world.
Most worryingly, even the broad-spectrum drugs used to provide a last-resort option when specific treatments failed aren't working. In several countries, they would not work in more than half of people treated for K. pneumoniae infections, a common bacteria found in intestines, the report says.
At the same time, the over-use of antibiotics is also affecting the body's natural ability to fight infections, as Alice Park, in Time, explains. That's because antibiotics kill both the bad and the "good" bacteria in the stomach when you take them.
The World Health Organization calls for better monitoring of resistance in both humans and animals (which account for four-fifths of antibiotic use in the U.S.), and greater awareness among individuals and doctors. As patients, we can help tackle resistance by finishing prescriptions and not sharing pills with other people, it says. Doctors can help by prescribing antibiotics only for their intended uses, and not for, say, the common cold.