Antibiotics: Sensible Use or Abuse?

Within the decade after penicillin was discovered in 1928, antibiotics were seen as wonder drugs able to wipe
out many potentially fatal bacterial infections. With these new weapons against disease, physicians gradually expanded the use of antibiotics to infections that were not life-threatening, and even to infections that were viral, for which the antibiotic was ineffective (for example, prescribing an antibiotic for the common cold to prevent a
“secondary bacterial infection”.

Unfortunately, the most infectious bacteria have changed their genetic makeup, developing resistance and keeping
pace with the invention of newer and more powerful antibiotics. Another, even more critical effect, is that when
antibiotics kill harmful bacteria they also eliminate huge numbers of beneficial bacteria. When these die, they leave
behind a wasteland of vacant tissue and organs, free to be colonized with new strains of microorganisms which can
then cause other serious diseases of their own. Examples of this include diarrhea or vaginitis occuring during or after
a course of antibiotics.

When antibioic use gained momentum in the 1950s, many “new” versions of old antibiotics were produced simply
to circumvent medical stagnation or, more often, a patent held by a competing pharmaceutical company.
Irrational use of antibiotics spread like armaments in the cold war, fostered by drug company promotions of the
superiority of their new weapons.

The period once euphemistically called the Age of the Miracle Drug is now dead. And the indiscriminate use
of antibiotics is leading us to one of the most frightening eras in recent memory. That is, the return of infectious diseases
for which there is no effective treatment. Two decades following the introduction of antibiotics, the medical
community began to see a disturbing trend. Bacterial infections that were once treatable no longer responded to
antibiotics. Penicillin is effective today against only 10 percent of the strains of Staphylococcus aureus that it used to
eradicate easily. Those that did respond often required five to ten times the dose of the drug that previously was
effective. One example of this is the resistant strains of gonorrhea that developed as a result of the antibiotics that
were used to treat it.

The trend in the development of antibiotic resistance is also seen in the increasing resistance of agricultural pests
to pesticides. In 1938, there were just seven insect and mite species that were known by scientists be resistant to
pesticides. By 1984, in response to heavier pesticide use and a larger number of pesticides, there were 447 species,
including most of the planet’s principal pests. Pesticides are also notorious for killing the pests’ natural enemies, just
as antibiotics kill the natural enemies of harmful bacteria.

As the late Robert van den Bosch, proponent of integrated pest management, put it, “Nature is emitting signals
saying that we cannot continue our attempts to ruthlessly dominate her and that if we persist, disaster is in the
offing. . .” (Robert van den Bosch, The Pesticide Conspiracy (Doubleday: New York, 1978).

Underestimating the evolutionary potential of living organisms is the single most important mistake made by
those who use chemistry to subdue nature. The ability to withstand human offense and defense twice as strong
as before is a theme that permeates the mythology of many cultures. Only Hercules could successfully prevail over
Hydra, the snake-headed monster who would grow back two heads for every one cut off.

The preference for chemical attacks over immunological enhancement reveals a cultural bias that values
treatment over prevention. Many want the “quick fix” for complex diseases because of a myopic “one-germ,
one-drug” mentality. These positions contribute to the proliferation of new drugs, and in turn, the proliferation of
new disease entities. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the case of AIDS.

We are at an exciting turning point in the history of infectious disease where people are beginning to ask where
are the champions of naturopathic medicine? Where are those who believe that most infections are caused by
ecological imbalances? Where are those who have replaced the wish to dominate the world of germs with the
conviction that an integrated approach to control is in the end the only way out?

Using chemicals that are derived from substances used in nature to control bacteria—or insect pests—is a
reasonable approach. Natural antibiotics, or their pesticide equivalents in pyrethrins, are safer and less toxic
than most synthetic analogs that have had reactive groups added on that have not been subjected to the
kind of evolutionary scrutiny that the natural substances have had. Many modern antibiotics, such as penicillin,
tetracycline, and erythromycin, actually occur in nature, and had drug companies not tried to modify them for
economical purposes, we might not be in quite the fix we now find ourselves in.

The lesson from our agricultural and medical experience is clear: ignoring the evolutionary abilities of natural
systems will only lead to ecological catastrophe. We must forsake the notion of the “magic bullet” and pursue
opportunities in self-help and immunology that would have the body’s own defenses control infection.


Avatar Written by Michael Traub ND

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