Truly alarming report on the growing resistance of bacteria to once-effective antibiotics and the struggle of scientists to find new weapons against them.
Vanity Fair staff writer Shnayerson (The Car That Could, 1996, etc.) and ethnobotanist Plotkin (Medicine Quest, 2000, etc.) document the consternation of doctors as they face a dismaying fact: drugs that once banished infectious diseases are now becoming ineffective. The principal causes, the authors report, are overuse and misuse of antibiotics. As millions of unnecessary prescriptions are written by physicians and as millions of pounds of antibiotics are fed to chickens and livestock to promote growth, chance mutations enable some bacteria to survive, creating new generations of antibiotic-resistant strains. In 1997, a promising new antibiotic called Synercid encountered bacterial resistance even before it reached the market because an analogue, virginiamycin, had long been used in agriculture. While Europe has been successful at keeping antibiotics out of animal feed, the US has not, despite the efforts of the CDC and other groups to persuade the FDA to act. Shnayerson and Plotkin tell a dramatic story, bringing to life a full cast of researchers, clinicians, patients, and deadly superbugs. Although microbes are the enemy, the fight seems like a battle of wits, and humans appear to be losing this round. In the continuing search for new strategies, researchers look for peptides in Komodo dragon saliva, among other places, reexamine the long-abandoned use of bacteria-eating viruses, focus on the use of vaccines, and hope that at some future time genomics will provide answers. An annotated list of relevant Web sites provides access to current information on the problem of antibiotic resistance.
The present threat of biological terrorism makes this scientific page-turner especially timely.