When a teenager in Idaho contracted the bubonic plague in early June, it made a few headlines because it was the first case in Idaho in 26 years. Half a millennium after it killed an estimated 60% of the European population, the specter of the Black Death still looms large in Western consciousness — gangrene, swollen lymph nodes, seizures — a horrific relic of days long past. But actually, although the bubonic plague has long been understood, it has never been eradicated.
In fact, outbreaks of the bubonic plague have been fairly common across the US since the early 20th Century. The last widespread outbreak happened in Los Angeles in late 1924, when 30 people who lived within a few blocks of each other contracted the bubonic plague, which developed into pneumonic plague, as it virtually always does when left untreated. Altogether, 24 people died in that outbreak, though newspapers at the time referred to it as a strain of pneumonia to prevent panic — and possibly anti-racist sentiment as the neighborhood affected was home to a large population of Mexican immigrants, including Patient 0. Antibiotics, which are still very effective against the bubonic plague, did not come into widespread use until the 1950s. Before that development, outbreaks were not unusual throughout the west, particularly in California, New Mexico, Arizona and Oregon.
Our best medicines are losing their power. Since the 1940s, antibiotics have stopped infections from turning deadly, saving millions of lives around the world. Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, surgery was more dangerous, now-curable diseases like STDs and tuberculosis killed millions, and a paper cut could be fatal. However, overuse and misuse of these drugs have led to the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of “superbugs.” Older types of antibiotics have been rendered useless by these powerful bacteria, compelling researchers to develop new generations of stronger varieties. Now those newer drugs are losing their effectiveness as well, and the World Health Organization has raised the alarm: We are running out of cures.
“Antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency that will seriously jeopardize progress in modern medicine,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of WHO. “There is an urgent need for more investment in research and development for antibiotic-resistant infections including TB, otherwise we will be forced back to a time when people feared common infections and risked their lives from minor surgery.”
A thousand feet below the earth’s surface, in the recesses of the deepest limestone cave in the Southern United States, a new strain of bacteria called Paenibacillus was found. It has been isolated from people and drugs for 4 million years.
Bacteria are evolving faster than we can find ways to kill them. When bacteria become resistant to superbugs—usually through overuse or incorrect use of antibiotics—they become superbugs. These superbugs are now responsible for at least 700,000 deaths a year, and that number is expected to skyrocket to 10 million by 2050. As Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said in 2012, “A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”
The World Health Organization has issued new guidelines for the treatment of gonorrhea after many new antibiotic-resistant strains have emerged around the world. The WHO recommends doctors use cephalosporins instead of quinolones (both of which are classes of antibiotics), changing the protocol for gonorrhea treatment for the first time since 2003.