Here’s a lovely article on why WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE HORRIBLE DEATHS SOON

Herewith the second of the things I saw on The Telegraph website this morning (this being the first), albeit that this one appears to have been around for a short while. It’s all about antibiotic resistance.

The microbiologist in me has been telling you for a long time that we’re about to run out of useful antibiotics and that we’re all doomed buggered. Well, here’s a nice little project from The Telegraph which sums up whole miserable situation up quite nicely. It doesn’t condescendingly spoon-feed the information, but rather, it’s nicely aimed at engaging with an audience which it presumes is interested and intelligent. Yes. I mean you guys.

There are expert quotes:

“We risk going into a post-antibiotic era, and that could start any time in the next 10 or 20 years, when modern medicine becomes impossible. Routine surgical procedures – hip replacements, caesarean sections, modern cancer treatments – all are based on using antibiotics to prevent or treat infections. Without them, people will die.”

…some lovely soundbites:

Sir Alexander Fleming did warn us. During a speech in Stockholm in 1945 after accepting his Nobel Prize, Fleming sounded “one note of warning” over bacteria becoming resistant through inappropriate use of the drug. “The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops.” he said. The idea of his precious discovery being stockpiled by online pharmacies, used to fatten up our fish and livestock, dumped in rivers and sprayed over fields, would have baffled and horrified him in equal measure.

…and a superb interactive graph showing how long it took for our bacterial foes to become resistant to each and every antibiotic from Penicillin (13 years) to Macrolides (a couple of months).

It even mentions Dr Ajit Lalvani, with whom I used to play football every Thursday evening in Oxford (decent, if unenergetic midfield general; good at pointing a lot, in case you were wondering), so it must be good.

If you have a few minutes spare, and you want to read how utterly doomed we all are (because who doesn’t?) and how you can do pretty much nothing about it, go and give it a read.

A different kind of transplant

When all else fails, (and make no mistake, all else is failing), comes the time to think outside the box. Some might argue that the time to think outside the box should come before all else fails, and they are probably correct in that, but that’s another argument.

We are slowly, surely, insidiously returning to a pre-antibiotic age. The antibiotics that we have are becoming less and less effective against common infections and consequently, those common infections are starting to kill us again. One such infection is Clostidium difficile (so “difficile” in fact, that we microbiologists even disagree on how to pronounce it, so it’s “C.diff” to its friends) – a gastrointestinal bug that gives you horrendous – and now incurable – diarrhoea. This bug kills 14,000 Americans each year, and lengthens the hospital stays of hundreds of thousands of others.

But while supportive therapy might help treat the symptoms, with no antibiotics available to treat the cause, we stay losing.
Until now:

…researchers have discovered an alternative: A donor’s stool can be transplanted in the intestine or colon of a sick patient via an enema,colonoscopy or nasogastric tube. The healthy bacteria fight off C. diff and re-establish a normal community in the gut.

Yep. Poo transplants. Regular (Lolz) readers may recall that we’ve had a quick look at this before, and then yesterday evening, this NYT article arrived from a medically qualified friend on Facebook, complete with smiley face attached.

It’s all about the world’s first “Stool Bank” and it’s beautifully written:

Around noon on a recent Friday, Donor Five, a healthy 31-year-old, walked across M.I.T.’s frigid, wind-swept campus to a third-floor restroom to make a contribution to public health.

Less than two hours later, a technician blended the donor’s stool into preparations that looked like chocolate milk. The material was separated and stored in freezers at an M.I.T. microbiology lab, awaiting shipment to hospitals around the country. Each container was carefully labeled: Fecal Microbiota Preparation.

There are issues though. The FDA are struggling to provide any sort of clarity on licensing of the treatment, meaning that donor poo can’t be sold for profit at the moment. And we know that large pharmaceutical companies are (understandably) reluctant to follow up on these things if there’s no money in them (another argument again).
Until the regulations are established, the research and the treatment can’t gain traction, but that’s not the biggest problem here. Because while there’s no traction in the research and treatment, people are taking matters into their own… er… hands: there exists the danger of an unregulated, unsafe Black… [shurely “Brown”? – Ed.] Market:

“People are doing fecal transplants in their basements and may not be doing any of the right screening or sterile preparation. We need an intermediate solution until there are commercial products on the market.”

What you get up to in your basement is entirely your business. Literally, it would seem in this case. But, even with my limited medical expertise, I would strongly advise against homemade faecal transplants.

Rather get a qualified doctor to fill your colon with someone else’s (screened) poo, should the need arise.

Are you listening yet?

It was about a year ago that I wrote the We’re All Buggered post, referring to antibiotic resistance and the potential threat of living in a post-antibiotic era. At that point, it wasn’t really news to anyone in the microbiological community: indeed, in that post I mentioned a seminar I attended ten years ago in Oxford, and even then it wasn’t really news to us.

But slowly, surely, these stories are beginning to infiltrate the media more and more often. And the reasons for this are fairly clear – scientists are becoming ever more concerned about the impending problems we are facing and moreover, a great number of the public are being affected by the issue, thus it’s becoming more relevant and therefore, more newsworthy.

Of course, if this problem wasn’t so insidious, we’d all be panicking about it already. If there were a 9/11 or a Hurricane Sandy – a single event – there would be far more awareness. (Not that awareness would really help anyway.)
But that’s not the case with the antibiotic resistance problem. It’s sneaking up on us and, for those of us in the know, it’s rather worrying*.

The latest “big name” to have come out with a stark warning is an associate director for the CDC, Dr. Arjun Srinivasan:

For a long time, there have been newspaper stories and covers of magazines that talked about “The end of antibiotics, question mark?” Well, now I would say you can change the title to “The end of antibiotics, period.”

We’re here. We’re in the post-antibiotic era. There are patients for whom we have no therapy, and we are literally in a position of having a patient in a bed who has an infection, something that five years ago even we could have treated, but now we can’t.

Quote via kottke.org (take tinfoil hat along for some of the comments). Here’s the full programme on PBS.org, with the suitably dramatic title: Hunting The Nightmare Bacteria. (Hint: it’s not difficult – just go to any major hospital and they’ll come find you.)

Jason Kottke suggests that drug-resistant infectious diseases should be added to the list of “disasters with no clear low point”, and he’s probably correct. Remember that Dame Sally Davies (the Chief Medical Officer in the UK) thought that:

“…the threat from infections that are resistant to frontline antibiotics was so serious that the issue should be added to the government’s national risk register of civil emergencies.”

and that puts it alongside threats like “explosive volcanic eruptions” and “catastrophic terrorist acts”.

As previously, I don’t expect this post to do anything to make a difference to the situation. There’s actually nothing we can do to prevent this now. I just thought that you ought to know.

Have a great weekend.

* The latter part of this sentence contains a fair amount of understatement.

Two more ways microbiology is going to kill you

Well, I say two “more”, but in fact we’ve covered one of these on more than one occasion previously. That’s the issue of antibiotic resistance and the fact that we’re all – at some point or other – going to die a horrible infected death.

But we won’t be the first. Not by a long shot. Because The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US revealed (just before the Federal Shutdown) that of the 2 million plus Americans affected by antibiotic resistant bugs each year, around 23,000 will die. This is news because it’s the first time they’ve put a hard number on the number of deaths. And they’ve done it as objectively as possible:

The number of deaths is substantially lower than previous estimates, in part because researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stripped out cases in which a drug-resistant infection was present but not necessarily the cause of death.

Which isn’t great, but does at least set down the ground rules – and therefore a baseline – for future calculations. Those future calculations are unlikely to be pretty:

“We are getting closer and closer to the cliff,” said Dr. Michael Bell, a CDC official who presented the data.

Yes, we know. Sally already told you that.

However, should you currently be in Madagascar (and especially in its prisons), antibiotic resistance is probably not going to worry you.
BUT THE BUBONIC PLAGUE MIGHT.

Yes, really.

Also known as The Black Death, this is exactly the same disease the swept through Europe in the 17th Century, killing about half the population of the continent. I remember a scare back in the lab in Oxford in the late 90s when one of our ID tests gave a result that could have indicated Y.pestis (the bug that cause bubonic plague) and everyone crapped themselves.
Fortunately, it turned out not to be the case and anyway, crapping oneself is not a symptom.

But now experts have warned that Madagascar is on the point of a major epidemic unless it slows the spread of the disease:

The Red Cross and Pasteur Institute say inmates in the island’s dirty, crowded jails are particularly at risk. The number of cases rises each October as hot humid weather attracts fleas, which transmit the disease from rats and other animals to humans. Madagascar had 256 plague cases and 60 deaths last year, the world’s highest recorded number.

Because this is a bacterial disease, it can easily be treated with antibiotics – and fortunately there are very few resistance problems in this case. For the moment at least.

The major issues with getting people treated are socioeconomic ones:

a lack of facilities and traditional shame over the disease made this tricky in outlying parts of Madagascar

Look, I’m not saying “don’t go to Madagascar”. It’s got a lot to offer: lemurs… and… stuff. But if you do go to Madagacar, it’s probably best to not end up in one of their prisons.

I’m sure you knew this already. I’m just saying that right now, it could be even worse than you expected.