Friday, October 11, 2013


One of the consequences of understanding disease as being caused by germs is a widespread perception that all germs are bad.

This finds its ultimate expression, perhaps, in certain varieties of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the idea that "all germs are bad" is a now generalized one. It has recently expanded to include the idea that "all fungi and molds are bad;" basically, if you can't see it, it is bad and therefore, in one way or another, dangerous.

While germ paranoia of the hand-wringing variety may be amusing when regarded from a clinical distance, it becomes a truly dangerous thing in the minds of the ignorant. People are trained to believe not only that all germs are bad, but that if they are sick in any way they ought to at once take drugs designed to kill germs (antibiotics.)

Drug companies have found it most expedient to encourage such ideas in the interests of boosting sales; and, recently, personal care product companies who manufacture soaps decided that it would be a teriffic idea to market antibacterial soap—even though soap is, by its very nature, already antibacterial. Triclosan, the common antibiotic ingredient touted (and used) as an additive to soaps, toothpastes, and other products, has been put, so it seems, in every soap dispenser in America.

Lo and behold. Bacteria are developing resistance to triclosan.

In the same way, doctors began, back in the late 1980's, to prescribe antibiotics to children every time they had an ear infection—in spite of the fact that statistics showed that antibiotics didn't really help ear infections clear up that much faster. Well, mothers wanted the doctors to do something against all those bad germs... what were they paying them for, anyway? It turned out to be more expedient to write the child a prescription than to have to listen to the mother complain. And the next thing you know, bacteria that cause ear infections were not only on the rise... they were drug-resistant.

The phenomenon of MDR (Multi Drug Resistant) bacteria is so well known by now that it's hit the mainstream. Everyone has read at least one horror story about a patient who got this, that or the other bug which just couldn't be killed. What isn't well known is that our over-use of antibiotics—which has drawn little or no real legislative attention from the health authorities in any nation—is causing these problems on a greater and greater scale. The "superbugs" that cause these disease problems are not, furthermore, living in isolation. They have spread otu into the egenral population and are passing their resistance genes on to foreign strains of bacteria—other bacteria which, in many cases, we don't even know about.

This deeply disturbing trend, another issue that has been underreported in the media and under-studied in labs, comes about because of the ability of bacteria to share genetic material between species via plasmids, gene packages that can engage in what amounts to interspecies sex. This proclivity was greeted with astonishment and delight when biologists first discovered it in the 1950's—it seemed miraculous—but as drug resistance spreads deeper and deeper into bacterial populations, it's looking decidedly more hellish than heavenly. The problems we've created by dosing our children with antibiotics for ear infections have moved well past their original targets.

The issue is even more widespread, because humans are not, actually, the prime users of antibiotics in society today. That dubious privilege belongs to farm animals... of which more in the next post.

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