What If Antibiotics Became Totally Useless?

Antibiotic resistance could mean the “end of modern medicine as we know it.” So said Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, last month in the keynote speech at a conference on antimicrobial resistance.

Bacteria are evolving to evade antibiotics, the result of our using them excessively to treat illnesses and — in industrial-scale farming — to fatten up cattle. Antibiotic resistance means that diseases, including tuberculosis, that have been curable may no longer be. Indeed antibiotic resistant strains of salmonella, E. coli and gonorrhea all exist now.

Accepting the fact that we are, as Dr. Chan said, “losing our front-line microbials,” some say it is time to “diversify our methods for treating bacterial infections and simultaneously reduce the amount of antibiotics we use,” by looking at treatments used before the development of penicillin.

Why Some Call Antibiotics “Miracle Drugs”

Antibiotics do what we want them to do really, really well. They kill bacteria but not us and have therefore transformed “grave illnesses into mere annoyances, providing doctors with license to shoot first and ask questions later, and do so safely,” writes Maggie Koerth-Baker. But the effectiveness of antibiotics has also been their, and possibly could be our, undoing. Broad spectrum antibiotics kills plenty of bacteria but not all and these surviving organisms that are resistant to antibiotics thrive.

Scientists are seeking to develop new antibiotics, but market forces mean that pharmaceutical companies are under-motivated to develop the next amoxicillin. People only take an antibiotic for about ten days while companies are far more willing to devote efforts (i.e., money) to developing drugs that might, for instance, lower cholesterol and need to be taken every day.

Pre-Penicillin Treatments: Serum Therapy and Biophages

Koerth-Baker describes two pre-antibiotic treatments. Serum therapy was invented in 1890 and involves antibodies, proteins that identify and attack invasive cells. Doctors used to get the antibodies by infecting horses and other animals with bacteria and then dosing humans with the antibodies taken from the animals’ blood.

Bacteriophages are viruses that attack bacteria and are applied right on the skin or jnternally; they’ve been used more in Eastern Europe, especially in places where drugs from the U.S. and Western Europe could not, for decades, be imported.

Both of these treatments are under study and even in use. Serum therapy (with cloned antibodies that are not from any animals) is used to treat cancer and arthritis and federal regulators have approved the use of a number of antibacterial phages in our food supply. Koerth-Baker explains more about these treatments:

Compared with the scorched-earth policy of broad-spectrum antibiotics, serums and phages are downright surgical. Antibodies are incredibly selective about which bacteria they’ll attack and which they’ll ignore. Bacteriophages are only slightly less choosy. Those traits can be a liability. Doctors must determine which bacteria is causing an infection before treating it, leading to potentially deadly delays.

Nonetheless, Dr. Chan and other scientists emphasize that replacement treatments to antibiotics are “more costly, more toxic, need much longer durations of treatment, and may require treatment in intensive care units.”

I’m grateful for what antibiotics can do, but treat them cautiously. They’ve been simply necessary to cure the painful skin infections my severely autistic son gets from time to time. He has a lot of obsessive-compulsive behaviors and it is very difficult to keep such infections from spreading, try as we, and he, might. But I also know that antibiotics also cause him severe stomach distress as they kill off the “good” bacteria as well as the bad in his gut (a probiotic has seemed to help).

Antibiotics are powerful medicines with not-to-be-overlooked side effects. We need to keep on campaigning against the heavy-duty feeding of antibiotics to livestock and be careful ourselves about not taking them in excess. Antibiotics also make it possible to perform certain chemotherapy, hip replacements and organ transplants and to care for preterm infants: they’re simply too valuable for our health to overuse and misuse so that, one day, we not be able to use them at all.

Related Care2 Coverage

Will Fifth Attempt to Ban Antibiotics on Farms Succeed?

Animals Helped Make Your Medicine: What Can a Vegan Do?

3 Things To Grow In Your Yard Instead Of Grass

Photo from Thinkstock


Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson5 years ago

the future is looking bleak as far as health goes. Hopefully we will be equipped to handle whatever comes next

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill5 years ago

This is why I don't use anti-bacterial soaps...EVER. They are just the tip of the problem, but something everyone can do.
Antibiotics are over prescribed, they don't work on everything!

Mónika M.
Monika M5 years ago

Don't take antibiotics! - that's the solution.
There are so many natural food to replace medicaments: aloe vera, grapefruit, garlic, propolis, tea tree, onion, oregano, lemon, cinnamon, lavender, horseradish roots.

greenplanet e.
greenplanet e5 years ago

Some of them already are, and some cause superbugs.

Edgar Zuim
Edgar Zuim5 years ago

Any type of antibiotic should be used only in cases of extreme necessity.

Kelly Lowry
Kelly Lowry5 years ago

Stop using all this antibacterial germ free We have become a country of germ crazed people but its not all our faults but I'm to tired to get on my soap box

Ro H.
Ro H5 years ago


B Jackson
BJ J5 years ago

Stop giving animals totally unnecessary antibiotics. Next, let's try healing ourselves with less or natural antibiotics.

Azriel Robert Collier

During the 50s, my bum was a dartboard for antibiotics, from one to the next until my body just plain violently/deadly reacted to and rejected all of them. There was a show called weird science whereby groups would have something they had to prove or disprove and could only use what qws available on an abandoned island off of nova scotia. In one episode a group had to test the healing qualities of three plants, one was a bit of bark from a local tree, one was a root of a flower and then there was the wild garlic. The made their agar from boiled down seaweed that was put into sterilized jars and swabbed the inside of the mouth of one of their team who had a cold. They rubbed the saliva onto the agar and placed a sample of plant material in the middle of each and then placed them into an incubator box that sat in the sun. I think they left it a few days and checked it often. The bark has mold slime right up to it. The root had the slime coming to within an 1/8 of an inch from the sample. The wild garlic has a few spots of slime here and there but otherwise the agar was free of infection. Among other properties, garlic has anti biotic, anti viral, and cancer fighting qualities that do work and because they come from the raw garlic, the enzymes that activate these properties are at work and take over the infections so that none survive and can develop an immunity to the garlic. I use raw garlic often and have used it in my fight against cancer. I am 12 years cancer free and did

Nikolas Karman
Nikolas K5 years ago

Yhe sooner antibiotics are of the market then the world can breath a sigh of relief as they have caused more harm and deaths that any disease. Lets see what is number two killer in the good ol USA hmmm its medical malpractice and antibiotics play a major part in all these legalised (murders) killings as only good doctors are persecuted by the AMA for healing people as the intention is to keep them as ongoing customers till they run out of money or die.