Too small to see, but a real threat

Despite fears of terrorism, the deadliest part of the war in Syria might be superbug strains

Researchers face the challenge of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Sia Kambou / AFP
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The fear of falling victim to terrorism is widespread, even if the actual risk is low. That is, after all, the goal of terrorism – to instil fear in the general population for political purposes. But if we are going to adopt an intelligent view about the risks posed by the Syrian conflict, by far the biggest risk is not being subject to a random act of violence by a combatant but from a far more mundane source: ­antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Médecins Sans Frontières has reported that soldiers in the Syrian conflict who have sought medical help in neighbouring countries are increasingly showing a resistance to the usual range of antibiotics. The situation has become so bad that doctors have been forced to amputate infected limbs in a last-ditch hope of saving a patient. In cases where the infection is in the brain or vital organs, death is inevitable.

Syria is a low point in what is a worldwide phenomenon, with antibiotic resistance already blamed for the deaths of 700,000 people each year – far more than the combined death toll of combatants and civilians since the Syrian conflict began more than five years ago. Some pessimistic studies say the figure could rise to 10 million a year by 2050.

This disproportionate fear of terrorism compared to superbugs stems from a perceived lack of control, similar to the way people fear flying even though from a strictly actuarial viewpoint, the drive to and from the airport is many orders of magnitude more hazardous. But the real message for those with the responsibility of keeping us safe is that resources need to be put into finding new ways of defeating superbugs as well as jihadist ideologies.

We ought to have faith that human ingenuity will meet this challenge, with researchers in Australia reporting encouraging early results from star-shaped polymers that can kill a range of superbug strains without antibiotics. For all the fear of terrorism, we ought to also fear those that can do us harm but are too small to see.