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How likely would you be to die from a routine operation if prophylactic antibiotics were just 30 percent less effective? A new study found out.

The term "post-antibiotic world" has been thrown around rather a lot lately — just as the discovery of antibiotics was one of the greatest advances humans ever made, the increasing presence of antibiotic-resistant micro-organisms is one of the greatest threats to human life. When we talk about a post-antibiotic world, we imagine an Earth where all antibiotics are ineffective at all times, but experiencing an apocalypse of sorts, one in which thousands of additional people die from infections each year, doesn't even take that wide of a scale of disaster. 

How would a situation in which prophylactic antibiotics administered to people undergoing routine operations were just 30 percent less effective affect people? A new study found out.

What Causes Antibiotic Resistance?

Before the revolutionary appearance of a whole class of drugs that could effectively fight bacteria, fungi and protozoa, millions of people the world over died from common ailments and injuries such as cystitis, pneumonia, meningitis, tick bites, cuts and scrapes, cat scratches, tuberculosis, and infections after childbirth. Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was discovered in 1928. Since it became widely available in the 1940s, we've all come to rely on antibiotics — we've taken them for granted, overused them, and used them for illnesses that don't respond to antibiotics at all, such as viruses. We've enjoyed living in an era where all kinds of things were possible. 

Not only does dying from a cut currently sound preposterous, we've also benefited from safe surgery, organ transplants that require artificially reduced immunity to succeed, and cheap, mass produced food — all courtesy of antibiotics. 

Well over a hundred different antibiotics exist today, but they come from only a few main classes, and no new classes have been discovered for far too long. More and more of our antibiotics are becoming less effective, meanwhile: though nearly all strains of Staphylococcus aureus responded to penicillin when it first came out, 90 percent of all strains are now resistant not just to penicillin, but to other antibiotics as well. These bacteria are responsible for everything from skin infections to pneumonia and ear infections, and we're now becoming unable to fight them. 

What changed? Not the antibiotics, but the bacteria they were designed to fight. Bacteria, some of the hardiest creatures on Earth, are subject to Darwin's theory of natural selection just like the rest of us. And bacteria don't just pass on their genes through reproduction: they can also shed their antibiotic-resistant DNA strands when they perish, and share them among the general bacterial population while still alive. Some bacteria actually destroy antibiotics, while others simply keep them at bay. What causes this? The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture are responsible — or to put it differently, we humans were brilliant when we discovered antibiotics, but not so brilliant when we started putting them to use, confident that the era in which common infections could kill was in the past.

What Can We Do To Stop Antibiotic Resistance?

On an individual level, the World Health Organization asks you to refrain from using antibiotics for viral infections, for which they aren't effective. If you have a flu, cold, or a sore throat, don't take matters into your own hands by using antibiotics, and ask your doctor for treatments that will actually work if they suggest a course of antibiotics. Don't ever take antibiotics without a prescription, but if you are prescribed antibiotics by your doctor, make sure to take them exactly as directed, finishing the whole course even if you already feel better. When you use antibiotics for ailments that don't respond to them, you reduce their efficacy, rendering you more vulnerable to bacteria when you do need antibiotics.

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