The day scientists warned us about has finally come. The first known case of the zombie sickness on U.S. soil was confirmed at a Pennsylvania hospital yesterday. The infected female patient presented with symptoms of a urinary tract infection in April of 2016, but doctors were concerned that her issue was much more severe. It turned out they were right.
When the woman’s urine sample was sent in for laboratory analysis, it became clear that the she had indeed contracted the dreaded, fatal zombie sickness. She has since been quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease. Zombie sickness is highly contagious and there is no known cure or treatment. Symptoms include fever, cold sweats, and rapidly deteriorating mental state. Those in later stages of zombie sickness are sometimes catatonic, and very often violent, prone to clawing and biting. There have even been reports of these patients becoming cannibalistic and eating human flesh.
This disease has previously shown up around the globe stretching from Europe, to Africa, and South America, as well as in China and Canada, but this is the very first case to be reported in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control urges hospital workers to exercise extreme caution in interacting with anyone who presents with these symptoms as zombie sickness is so highly contagious and almost always fatal. Worldwide, it is estimated that 700,000 people die yearly as a result of zombie sickness with estimates expected to climb now that the disease is stateside.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard this groundbreaking story anywhere else, it is because it is not entirely true. But there are some important elements of truth: Lab results recently came back for a woman in Pennsylvania showing that she had contracted a bacterial urinary tract infection caused by E-coli. This particular strain of E-coli was resistant to the antibiotic Colistin. Colistin is currently the last line of defense against bacterial infections. It is the drug they use when all other antibiotics have failed. If you are paranoid about the zombie apocalypse happening, this is a real life equivalent and it is just as scary.
While doctors were eventually able to find other antibiotics that did work for this woman’s infection, the type of resistance harbored by this type of E-coli is particularly problematic. This type of E-coli stores its antibiotic resistant gene in a place that makes it very easy to share with other bacteria, via something called horizontal gene transfer.
What that means is that these superbugs can share their resistant genes with other bacteria, even those that are not forms of E-coli. If bacteria are resistant to the other less potent antibiotics and then pick up resistance to Colistin from these rogue e-coli, we could be looking at a world where catastrophic numbers of people die from simple bacterial infections, because there are simply no drugs left that have the power to do anything.
How did we get to this point?
There are many things we as humans do that increase the spread of antibiotic resistant superbugs but here are a key few:
1. Taking antibiotics when we don’t need them, and pressuring doctors to give them to us without a clear diagnosis. Not all illnesses are created equal. Bacterial infections are caused by tiny living microbes, but viral infections are caused by non-living viruses. Antibiotics are only effective for killing bacterial infections caused by things like Salmonella, E-coli, Listeria, Streptococcus, etc…
“Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, and many leading organizations now recommend against using antibiotics unless there is clear evidence of a bacterial infection.” – WebMD
If you have a cold, flu, or other virus, taking antibiotics will NOT help you get better. It will only increase the chances of your body creating antibiotic resistant bacteria.
“Doctors often wind up prescribing antibiotics because of pressure from patients or parents” – Katherine Fleming-Dutra, a CDC medical epidemiologist.
2. Another problem is not following the prescribed dosage instructions or discontinuing antibiotic usage early. Antibiotics are meant to be taken as prescribed.
“Take an antibiotic exactly as the healthcare provider tells you. Do not skip doses. Complete the prescribed course of treatment even if you are feeling better. If treatment stops too soon, some bacteria may survive and re-infect.” – RxList
3. A bigger problem that many people aren’t aware of is the use of antibiotics in food.
It is estimated that 1/3 of antibiotic prescriptions written for humans are unnecessary. Now that is a lot of unnecessary antibiotic use, but what if I told you that 80% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. end up being given to animals, not humans? Livestock confined in cramped cages and barns are often at risk for many diseases because of unsanitary, crowded conditions. As a result, these animals are given antibiotics to prevent illness. Sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics in livestock have also been historically linked to growth promotion. The constant stream of antibiotics in livestock has made room for many new drug resistant superbugs to emerge, and for these bacteria to cause infection in humans. The same type of Colistin resistant E-coli that caused this Pennsylvania woman’s UTI was originally discovered in 2013 in a pig in China.
We are standing on the edge of a figurative cliff.
Bacteria are evolving faster than we can create new treatments. And, because people only need antibiotics for a few days or a week, there is little incentive to work on creating new ones.
“Antibiotics, in particular, have a poor return on investment because they are taken for a short period of time and cure their target disease.” – World Health Organization
Sadly, the research and development go where the money is, and the big bucks aren’t found in developing new antibiotics.
Each year, 2 million Americans contract antibiotic resistant bacterial infections, and at least 23,000 die from them. It is estimated that by the year “2050, 10 million people will die a year from otherwise curable diseases.” This means that we could be looking at a future in which antibiotics are powerless to help us fight bacterial infections. This means simple surgeries like wisdom teeth removal might not be possible. Do you want to live in a world with no useful antibiotics? Where you could die from complications of a simple surgery? Or a urinary tract infection? or Strep Throat? Or an ear infection?
This article was designed to create a pit in your stomach. At this point it should be clear that as a society we are in a very precarious position. A zombie apocalypse is scary, but it’s not real. Antibiotic resistance is a very real threat to the survival of humanity – a real threat that we have to start fighting immediately.
So what can we do?
1. Only take antibiotics when you absolutely need them, as directed by your doctor, and don’t pressure your doctor into giving you an antibiotic that you don’t need.
2. Take the full prescribed course of antibiotics as directed when your doctor diagnoses you with a bacterial infection. You might want to ask your doctor about which drugs are most effective for treating the type of bacterial infection you have.
3. Eat organic meat. USDA organic regulations “require that animals are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture), fed 100% organic feed and forage, and not administered antibiotics or hormones.” Because of this more humane treatment, constant preventative antibiotics are not necessary. If organic meat isn’t feasible in your budget at the moment, look for companies that pledge not to use antibiotics in their meat or opt for vegetarian protein sources like beans or quinoa. Also, look for wild caught fish, as farmed fish are often raised in unsanitary conditions with heavy antibiotic use.
The future of antibiotics looks grim right now, but we can change it by being vigilant. By now you should have a full arsenal to arm you in your fight in the zombie apocalypse. Don’t let the zombie sickness sneak into your home, and make sure you are protecting your family. Being smart about antibiotic use and switching to organic or antibiotic free meat and fish will go a long way in helping protect you from the walking dead.