Why should anyone be interested in an old cure that hasn’t been used in the West for 50 years? It’s a method that many doctors aren’t even aware of today.
The most telling answer to this question came when I received a call in my office from a man one Friday morning in January 2001. It was the day after my article on the Eliava Institute in Georgia had appeared in the German weekly newspaper «Die Zeit». In the article I had described how this old remedy – phage therapy – had survived in the impoverished country.
The caller explained that he had read the article. He was calling directly from the hospital and appeared to be under a great deal of pressure. Not mincing words, he explained that he had been suffering from an infection in his foot for two years. Doctors couldn’t get it under control because the bacteria were resistant to all antibiotics. He was scheduled to have his foot operated on a fourth time the next day. Could I put him in touch with someone in Georgia? He was afraid that before long he would lose his foot.
More than any research I have done, his call hit me between the eyes. Never before had I been so aware of the power that bacteria continue to wield over us. We have grown up with the certainty that every bacterial infection can be cured by antibiotics. Most of us have no idea of the destruction that bacteria are capable of rendering, because our doctors prescribe drugs at the slightest symptom.
But in more and more cases doctors prescribe one antibiotic after the other without being able to eliminate the infection – because the bacteria are resistant against the drugs. One of the most notorious bugs is Staphylococcus aureus. In the UK, 39 per cent of staph infections were multi-resistant in 2004. In the US, this number is closer to 50 per cent. Only a few countries are as lucky as the Netherlands or Sweden where multi-resistant staph make up only a few per cent or less.
An estimated 90,000 US patients die annually from infections contracted in the hospital, many of them caused by multi-resistant bacteria. And, in the past 4 to 5 years doctors have been alarmed to see some resistant staph strains leaving their original home – the hospitals – and conquering cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago.
There are not only resistant staph. Many hospital patients contract bugs called Clostridium difficile that can cause severe diarrhoea. Another bacterium that often has acquired a high degree of resistance is called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Patients at risk are burn victims whose wounds are favorite dwellings for this bug. Another target are the lungs of cystis fibrosis (CF) patients – a hereditary disease that causes sticky secretions in the lung and other organs. The average life expectancy of CF patients is not much more than 30 years. And these are only two more examples of many.
A doctor from Texas who specializes in helping people with chronic wounds once to told me: «We see many wounds that do not heal, we have limbs that are being cut off, and we have people dying.» All of this because bacteria develop resistance against all available drugs. Still, many pharmaceutical companies have stopped their research on antibiotics because they don’t see enough profit in that market.
Because of all this, it makes perfect sense to revisit phage therapy and evaluate how it can help us all staying healthy.