In Vitro Lottery is set several decades after an antibiotic-resistant form of pneumonic plague, known as the Norwegian Death, has wiped out half the population of the world. Although a work of fiction, it does highlight the very real danger of the rise of bacterial diseases which cannot be treated with conventional methods.
This week the UK Government announced a slew of measures to combat the risks of so-called 'superbugs' such as MRSA, resistant C. difficile and the large increase in E. coli infections. According to a recent BBC News article, E. coli cases in England have increased 20% in the last five years to ~40,000 last year, with 1/3 of infections now resistant to antibiotics.
Most of the measures are focused on prevention in hospitals; making sure wards are clean and hands are washed between dealing with patients. Data on infections per ward for E. coli will be shared between hospital trusts and the public so lessons, both good and bad, can be learned and acted upon (MRSA and C. Diff are already available). Prescription rates of antibiotics will also be published to help highlight any potential over-use.
What is really needed, however, are new antibiotics and proper regulation of existing ones so that they are not over-used.
The main problem with this is that new drugs usually cost hundreds of millions of dollars to be developed, and would only be used sparingly as a last line of defence. There is therefore very little incentive for pharma companies to invest in them without governments contributing to the costs. Will it take a major outbreak to break the deadlock?