Although there have been warnings about the overuse use of antibiotics since the 1940s, their consumption continues to grow and doctors continue to prescribe them in unnecessary situations.  This despite widespread knowledge and recognition of the worldwide crisis we will face when they are no longer effective.  Currently antibiotic resistance already accounts for about 70 000 deaths per year worldwide and this number is projected to grow to 10 million in 2050.  Antibiotic resistance is now on the World Health Organisation’s watch list of pandemic risks and, worryingly, antibiotic-resistant organisms are commonly found in hospitals because of the common use of strong antibiotics within them.

According to a recent article in medical journal, The Lancet, the overuse of antibiotics is not only a problem in countries like South Africa and India where they are widely available over the counter, but also in countries where doctors are supposed to act as gatekeepers; for instance in the United Kingdom it is estimated that nearly half of people aged 15–24 years have taken antibiotics not meant for them and that one in four general practitioners' prescriptions may be unnecessary.

One example is the sexually transmitted disease, Gonorrhea, which has historically been easily and cheaply cured with a course of antibiotics.  The World Health Organisation has announced it is now becoming drug-resistant.  Cases have been reported of resistance to the last treatment option (cephalosporin antibiotics) in Australia, France, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the UK.  According to the Dr Manjula Lusti-Narasimhan, a scientist in the WHO’s department of sexually transmitted diseases:

“This organism has basically been developing resistance against every medication we've thrown at it… In a couple of years it will have become resistant to every treatment option we have available now… It's not a European problem or an African problem, it's really a worldwide problem.”

Much of our population growth over the last few decades has been due to the incredible increase in our medical knowledge and the concomitant decrease in mortality rates.  However, if our ability to cure diseases becomes less effective then we may well see global mortality rates increase.  Added to chronically low fertility rates in much of the globe, we could see population growth slow and then decline even more than is currently predicted.   

In order to avert an antibiotic crisis we need to improve awareness, prescribe antibiotics more appropriately, eliminate unapproved antibiotics, as well as research more effective drugs to take their place.  Finding new antibiotics is apparently possible which is comforting, but it is time-consuming and costly.  We all need to do our bit to safeguard the medical treatments we currently have to preserve our health and ensure our quality of life.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...