The war with the highest stakes isn't taking place in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya.
It's being fought in hospitals and labs around the world--and whether you know it or not, you're on the front lines, too.
It's the war of the superbugs, microscopic monsters that don't need guns or bombs to kill people by the thousands. And now, the World Health Organization is warning that these drug-resistant bacteria are spreading faster than anyone ever imagined.
"We need to raise the alert that we are at a critical point in time where antibiotic resistance is reaching unprecedented levels, and new antibiotics are not going to arrive quickly enough," Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said in a news release.
The organization says most antibiotics could soon be useless--turning back the clock to the time before penicillin, when any infection had the potential to turn into a life-or-death battle.
But it doesn't take a World Health Organization bulletin to see that there's a war going on here, and we're losing.
Just a look at the latest headlines will do.
- In California, researchers found at least 350 cases of carbapenem-resistant Klebsiella pneumonia in Los Angeles-area care facilities between June and December last year. This once-rare--and very deadly--bug has now turned up in 35 states since 2009.
- A new study finds bacteria in almost half of all supermarket meat samples--and half of those bugs were resistant to at least three classes of common antibiotics. I'll have more on that this weekend.
- Last year, there were 440,000 cases of tuberculosis resistant to drugs reported in nearly 60 countries.
- Malaria, gonorrhea and other diseases are now almost untreatable in a growing number of cases.
- In Taiwan, 8 percent of kids between 2 and 5 years old are infected with multi-drug resistant bacteria, according to a new study in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology.
- In New Delhi, a mutation that can make bacteria impervious to just about any drug -- including the most powerful antibiotics saved for the last resort--has turned up in the water supply, including the drinking water.
All these drug-resistant bugs have scientists scrambling for solutions--but in many cases, there are none in the making.
Drug companies are holding out for incentives (read: taxpayer money and concessions like patent extensions) before they develop more powerful antibiotics--and most experts believe these drugs are still years away, if they even arrive at all.
But more drugs aren't the solution--because the overuse of the drugs we have now is what caused this crisis in the first place. If new drugs are created, you can bet we'll overuse them just as badly.
We need a new approach, and a new commitment to stop medicating every sniffle in humans... and stop pumping these drugs into cattle.
Until we do, we'll keep losing the war.