Antibiotics: yet another surprising twist

Those who know me well, know that I have a rather unusual, some would say radical view of health and illness. I don't intend to elaborate in detail, but suffice to say that, especially with respect to the treatment of diseases, I often question the approach used by the Western medical model.

One of my chief complaints has always been the apparent short shrift given to the study of those who are exceptionally healthy. There are billions of dollars spent each year on the study of disease, yet only a tiny fraction is spent attempting to discern why some people, even in the face of direct exposure and other high risks, do not become ill. I believe that a large part of the reason for that imbalance is the perceived success of the use of antibiotics as a magic bullet in the "war on disease". But I'm afraid that, much like the "war on terror", attempting to kill the enemy without a full understanding of it is, ultimately, futile.

There is, of course, widespread hope that rapid advances in technology and the development of new medicines will eradicate the terrible diseases which afflict us. And why not? Haven't a number of important diseases already been eradicated? Well, the answer to the latter question is actually not as straighforward as it may seem. But setting that aside, the history and, especially the current state of antibiotics provide a fascinating illustration of just how complex and difficult it is to fight diseases by attempting to kill them with a drug. In fact, modern society's heavy reliance on (and overuse of) antibiotics has now rendered the world's population dangerously vulnerable to the very type of illnesses which they were originally designed to fight.

Professor Richard James, a biomolecular scientist based in the U.K., touches on some of these points in an interesting recent interview with Stephen Armstrong of The Guardian.

"Between 1940 and 1970 - the golden age of antibiotics - we developed thousands of the drugs," he explains. "And then we squandered them. We fed antibiotics to chickens and cattle. We handed them out to people with a cold. Each time you try to kill bacteria, you're forcing them to select for survival. Now we've basically bred bugs that flourish in a hospital environment and they're just waiting to bite. You've got sick people in there, people having transplants taking drugs to suppress their immune systems, HIV patients, the elderly and the young. And yet nothing is being done."


We drive to the village of Eyam - the site of a strange skirmish in this long-running campaign. In 1665 the Black Death arrived there via some flea-infested cloth. In an attempt to protect nearby towns and cities, the villagers made an extraordinary sacrifice: they quarantined themselves. No one could leave and no one could enter. Over the ensuing two years, more than 260 out of 350 died, but the plague was contained. Curiously, one of the survivors was the undertaker, who had handled every infected corpse. Researchers into Aids recently traced his descendants and found that they possessed unusual cell walls that made them immune to both bubonic-plague bacteria and HIV.

Read the full interview at The Guardian





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