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  “Which of these are smarter, humans or microorganisms?” The Professor asked. Fingers sprouted in the air as his students jostled to a...

 “Which of these are smarter, humans or microorganisms?” The Professor asked. Fingers sprouted in the air as his students jostled to answer his question. “You,” he said pointing at one of his brightest students. “Humans sir,” he said. “And you?” He asked another student. “Humans sir,” he too answered, echoing the lack of understanding of the antibiotic dilemma that the human society faces. “I am afraid right now microorganisms are winning the battle, so it is only fair to say that they are smarter,” the Professor delivered the message of doom to his students. Following Alexander Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin, there was an explosion of antibiotic discoveries. With humans able to treat ailments that were once untreatable, arrogance crept into the human mentality with regards to bacterial infections. The misuse of antibiotics especially for agricultural purposes (livestock production) has led to emergence of the so called SUPERBUGS. These are bacteria that are resistant to virtually all known antibiotics, and as the years go by, new species and strains of superbugs are isolated worldwide. The scary aspect of this scenario is that we are not stumbling upon these deadly superbugs; we are isolating them from critically infected (ill) patients.

Until lately, Colistin served as the last resort – the only drug capable of killing most of the superbugs. That is no longer the case. An article on the BBC website ( reports the recent isolation of Colistin-resistant bacteria in both humans and livestock in China. According to the article, we as a society are on the cusp of the ANTIBIOTIC APOCALYPSE – back into the dark ages when diseases wiped human populations by the millions. Imagine not being able to treat typhoid fever, bacterial skin infections, tuberculosis, whooping cough, pneumonia, just to mention a few. Worryingly, most of these infections are highly contagious, which means that if new more active drugs are not brought to the market sooner than later, thus, the next major outbreak of diarrhea caused by a superbug could exert a devastating impact on the affected community or area. If we consider the rate at which the last Ebola outbreak in West Africa spread beyond international borders, it would be foolhardy to confine our estimation of the effects of superbug-mediated infections to small localities.

It is estimated that if the current trend of antibiotic resistance persists, by the year 2050 deaths resulting from superbug infections would be in the range of 4.7 million people in Asia, 4.2 million people in Africa; 390, 000 in Europe; 392, 000 in Latin America; 317, 000 in North America, and about 22, 000 in Oceania. The crux of the matter is that the more we bombard bacteria with antibiotics, the more they figure out ways to evade them. This is a natural instinct encoded in the DNA of all living things. So, controlling the manner in which we use antibiotics becomes paramount. More importantly, discovering new antibiotics has never been more urgent. The immediate last two sentences above are semantically incompatible, unfortunately. 

Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars to bring a single new antibiotic to the market; hence, they want to recoup their investment with considerable profit as quickly as possible. In the western world where the use of antibiotics is heavily regulated, this does not bode well for business. Consequently, most pharmaceutical companies have either scaled back their antibiotic discovery programs significantly, or shut them down altogether. Some people refer to pharmaceutical companies are DEVILS because of such decisions, while the pharmaceutical companies argue that it makes no business sense to invest heavily on drugs from which they are unlikely to recoup their investment quickly. Both sides may have a valid argument so to speak, but that does not solve the problem.

The estimates mentioned earlier on the impacts of superbugs by 2050 show that the developing world, mostly Asia and Africa will be hit the hardest. As Africans, we are used to calling out to the West to come to our rescue. In this case, the West may not have the answers. It is therefore imperative that African and Asian governments begin to invest heavily on new antibiotic discovery projects now!!! If governments in Africa and Asia heavily subsidize the cost of drug discovery, it would serve as an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to once again pursue the development of new, more active molecules that could buy us time at least or stem the tide of antibiotic resistance at best. Whatever the case, governments around the world ought to take more decisive actions to significantly scale back or completely stop the use of antibiotics in livestock production; the singular most contributing factor to the emergence of deadly superbugs that boldly and menacingly threaten our existence as did the Black Death pandemic (Yersinia pestis) centuries ago!

                                                            Written by:
                                                        Victor Chinoo
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