There have always been people screaming about forthcoming DOOM. Most of them are, at best, hyperbolic. But bacteria entirely resistant to antibiotics seems to be a virtual inevitability. What would that world look like?
The closest we can come to understanding what a future world without antibiotics would look like would be to look at what the world was like before antibiotics. Things like:
One of the first people to receive penicillin experimentally was a British policeman, Albert Alexander. He was so riddled with infection that his scalp oozed pus and one eye had to be removed. The source of his illness: scratching his face on a rosebush. (There was so little penicillin available that, though Alexander rallied at first, the drug ran out, and he died.)
Before antibiotics, five women died out of every 1,000 who gave birth. One out of nine people who got a skin infection died, even from something as simple as a scrape or an insect bite. Three out of ten people who contracted pneumonia died from it. Ear infections caused deafness; sore throats were followed by heart failure.
Now, on the one hand, things might not be quite that bad. We have a better understanding of infections, and things like soap and antiseptics are far more common. On the other hand, by becoming antibiotic resistant, a lot of bacterial infections have become much more ferocious.
In a post-antibiotic world, a lot of current medical practices would become largely untenable. Burn wards would be filled with the dying, not the healing. Any operation or wound to the intestines. Apparently one in six hip replacements would result in an infection that would probably kill the patient. Imagine that: one in six, dead as a doornail. With that sort of risk, what doctor would even *consider* a joint replacement? With the knowledge that there was a one in six chance that some ambulance chasing lawyer would come and ruin his practice, doctors – or at least their insurers – would be forced to abandon medical procedures that have become common. You can also expect to lose:
Implantable devices (pacemakers, insulin injectors, etc)
More: it won’t be just humans. Expect the populations of cows and sheep and pigs and chickens to collapse, and the cost of raising them to skyrocket. An agricultural veteranians job would very quickly turn pretty much into ” the guy who comes out and shoots animals in the head with a captive-bolt gun and provides information on the best way to burn carcasses in large numbers.” Expect the era of easy spay & neuter to go away.
And you smug vegans? Watch out. “Fire blight” got resistant and in 2000 nearly wiped out the apple and pear orchards in Michigan. And it has now moved to New York.
One of the worst effects on society would be the end of the Unwanted Blog, as the first time I get bronchitis post-antibiotics, it’ll likely kill me.
A potentially bright side would be the faint hope provided by discoveries of whole new lines of antibiotics, as described HERE. But these antibiotics are more or less just hypothetical and years away from deployment. And who’s to say that they won’t get over-run by resistance just as quickly?
Options include bacteriophages, which the Soviets were really keen on (which should spook you right there). These are virii that are tailored to go after the infectious bacteria. On one level, sounds great. But viral infections are even harder to deal with than bacterial, so any mutation in the virus and BOOM. Commiezombie apocalypse. But since any new antibiotic is likely, sooner or later, to become impotent, I can see phage therapy gaining lots of ground.
Similarly, and much more expensively, nanotech *might* produce little robotic monsters that will march through an infection and take out bacteria with tiny phaser blasters or chainsaws. But i have doubts about this being truly practical any time soon.
But hey, y’all know me, I’m all about the bright side. Lets assume the post-antibiotic apocalypse hits. People start dropping dead in large numbers due to infections from *stupid* causes. Rug burn. Bug bites. Cat scratches. Simple, formerly easily-treated problems become regularly life-threatening. What will this do to society? Well, whenever Bad Stuff happens, out come the torches and pitchforks. If we are *supremely* lucky, the howling mobs can be directed to do something useful: take out the lawyering class. with medicine in a state of collapse, doctoring will be a lot less effective. At first, the lawyers will do great bank suing doctors for not solving cases that previously would have been solvable. eventually, though, I suspect most people will finally get it… when they themselves have a medical issue and there are no doctors who will treat them. And thus, the lawyers – who have stood in the way of medical progress by suing the bejesus out of companies who release products that took a decade and a billion dollars to develop, only to find unfortunate side effects – will finally gain the publics ire.
And then there’s THESE assholes. By denying that evolution occurs, they deny the basic process that allows bacteria to become resistant. This ideology, coupled with their anti-vaxxer kin, is about as antithetical to human health as I can imagine. I could hope that post-antibiotic apocalypse would result in the end of these anti-science types… but here my sunny nature fails me and I remember that when times go bad, people tend to turn to superstitious claptrap along with quack remedies.