The invisible killers

With its horrible symptoms and 80% mortality rate, Ebola fever is especially frightening. The cases in Spain and the U.S. served as a reminder that procedures for strict disinfection, while simple on paper, are less so in practise. Even the Western health system cannot entirely protect us from this virus.

But as is often the case, the media’s attention said more about our biased perceptions of the risk than about the real threat. The real killers in Western hospitals are not the Ebola virus but pneumococci, staphylococci or E. coli. These ordinary and not very exotic bacteria have developed multiple resistances to our antibiotics, causing the death of 25,000 patients a year in Europe from infections developed in hospitals.

Worried about someday running out of effective antibiotics against certain diseases, medical experts have already sounded the alarm. With some results: in 2012, the European Union announced a €200 million public-private partnership to support research on new types of antibiotics.

Even so, the “war on superbugs” cannot be won without opening other fronts. We will have to change our habit of prescribing antibiotics far too generously, a practice that favours the development of new resistant germs. Other areas will also require attention: in the U.S. 80% of antibiotics are used to accelerate the growth of farm animals, which then become incubators of multi-resistant bacteria.

It is a paradox of our modern societies: an excess of prevention can also kill. The major problems we face will not be solved with a magic technological wand. Above all, we will have to attack the problem at its root by changing the behaviour of professionals as well as the public. As any geopolitical expert will attest, winning the peace is often harder than prevailing in war.

Daniel Saraga


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