The Antibiotic Apocalypse Will Change the Way We Live


In ourseries on healthy homes, we described how fear of bacteria and disease was one of the rationales behind the modern movement in architecture, and one of the roots of minimalism. Now, according to Robin McKie in the Observer (the Sunday Guardian), we may well be facing a time when we might have to live in fear of many diseases again, and it might change a lot more than medicine, it will change the way we live.

In the words of England’s chief medical officer, Sally Davies: “The world is facing an antibiotic apocalypse.” Unless action is taken to halt the practices that have allowed antimicrobial resistance to spread and ways are found to develop new types of antibiotics, we could return to the days when routine operations, simple wounds or straightforward infections could pose real threats to life, she warns.

Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness because they have been over prescribed, but also because of the way they are used to raise animals and fish. They are getting into our water systems through improper disposal and even via our toilets as humans excrete them. McKie is certainly apocalyptic in his writing about this:

The danger, say scientists, is one of the greatest that humanity has faced in recent times....The world will face the same risks as it did before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. “Routine surgery, joint replacements, caesarean sections, and chemotherapy also depend on antibiotics, and will also be at risk,” says Jonathan Pearce, head of infections and immunity at the UK Medical Research Council. “Common infections could kill again.”

In her book The Drugs Don’t work,, Sally Davies wrote that antibiotics were not the only thing that reduced death and disease; prior to their invention, “the main influences on the decline of mortality were better nutrition, improved hygiene and sanitation, and less dense housing with all helped to prevent and to reduce transmission of infectious diseases.”

Today more people are living in crowded conditions with often deteriorating hygiene, sanitation and nutrition, all things that help spread disease quickly. That’s why this is an architecture and urban design issue as well as a health story- Our buildings and our cities, how we live and what we eat, all have roles to play in this. As antibiotic expert Lord Jim O’Niell tells McKie:

“In the end, the problem posed to the planet by antimicrobial resistance is not that difficult,” says O’Neill. “All that is required is to get people to behave differently. How you achieve that is not so clear, of course.”