I don’t believe in capital punishment, except in three extreme circumstances: People who use their cell phones in movie theaters, people who change lanes without using their turn signals and people who demand antibiotics from their doctor every time they get the sniffles.
But the irony is, the last category of people might be the ones who end up killing us.
Because America’s obsessive overuse of antibiotics – which extends to prescribing them as a placebo for people with colds and flu (which are caused by a virus, which antibiotics are ineffective against) – has resulted in the development of new strains of common diseases that are now resistant to traditional antibiotic treatment.
The most famous of these is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. Now they’re joined by a strain of the sexually transmitted disease Gonorrhea which is similarly resistant to traditional antibiotics. Given that Gonorrhea is the second most-commonly transmitted STD – affecting over 700,000 Americans every year – this could be potentially devastating news.
What could it mean for those at risk? That a case of the “clap”, once treated with a single antibiotic injection, could now be a life-long condition putting every future sexual partner at risk.
And while Gonorrhea isn’t generally life-threatening, it’s pretty damn gross. While half of women don’t show symptoms, the rest might experience vaginal discharge, abdominal pain and the disease can cause blindness in children born from a mother carrying the disease.
Men, on the other hand, are more likely to show symptoms, including intense, burning pain while urinating and discharge from the penis. In both sexes, Gonorrhea can spread to the heart and cause endocarditis, or the spine to cause meningitis.
And unlike other incurable sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, Gonorrhea is virulent. Women have a 60-80% chance of infection from a single act of unprotected vaginal sex.
In short, if treatment-resistant Gonorrhea continues to spread, it could totally change the way Americans have sex within a single generation.
So what can we do?
Firstly, continue to practice safe sex. The risk of transmission is significantly reduced by using condoms, or practicing monogamy with a fluid-bonded partner.
But secondly, start taking a more active and responsible role in the way you utilize the medicines that, until recently, could protect you from diseases like this one.
One of the reasons America has the highest healthcare costs in the world is because we’re used to being served medication a la carte. We can literally demand antibiotics from our doctor – even for health issues that they will be completely ineffective in treating (like coughs and colds) – and medical professionals will normally choose to hand over those drugs rather than waste 15 to 20 minutes explaining to a demanding, ignorant patient why that medication just won’t work.
But the problem is, taking antibiotics when you don’t need them allows bacteria to evolve and mutate until they develop a resistance to the medication – so when you finally DO need to take antibiotics, they just don’t work.
And MRSA and Gonorrhea are just the tip of the iceberg. As we continue to ignorantly abuse antibiotics, we accelerate the development of even more treatment-resistant bacteria.
"The emergence of antibiotic resistance is the most eloquent example of Darwin's principle of evolution that there ever was," warns Dr. David Livermore, director of the antibiotic resistance monitoring and reference laboratory of the Health Protection Agency. "It is a war of attrition. It is naive to think we can win."
And what’s the end result? A veritable dark ages for modern medicine. We would literally be thrown back in time to the Victorian-era. Pneumonia and tuberculosis would once again become mass killers, and many medical procedures – like organ transplants – would become impossible.
And the most terrifying part of all this? It could – perhaps even will – happen within our lifetime.