Saturday, May 23, 2009

Whom are we killing?

We are a society obsessed. Everywhere we go, there are soaps and detergents with antibacterial agents in them. Some of our food is irradiated to kill micro-organisms. Our milk is ultra-pasteurized in the name of sanitation. At the first sign of the sniffles, our healthcare providers eagerly prescribe antibiotics that today can cleanse your native flora with great efficiency. Our food animals, which are raised on factory farms in conditions that should be considered torture, are given antibiotics routinely, so as to prevent disease from galloping through their overcrowded quarters. Because of all these measures we are healthier today than ever before, right?

Well, not exactly. As a nation, our health is in the bottom third of all of the developed countries in the world. Despite the most expensive healthcare system on Earth, we have the biggest problems with access, and the quality of the product when we do access it is not that great. But aside from that, all this cleanliness has made a positive difference, of course... Well, no again! Some scientists think that our over-sanitized life style has contributed to the escalating rates of asthma and other allergic conditions. We know for certain that overuse of antibiotics is responsible for creating a cadre of superbugs that threaten to bring us back to pre-antibiotic era (if you don't believe me, just check out the FDA and the WHO web sites). The use of antibiotics in animal production (incidentally responsible for roughly 70% of all antibiotics utilized in this country) has not stemmed the tide of food-borne outbreaks, and has likely contributed to antimicrobial resistance that is affecting the human population. And yet, even healthcare providers by and large have bought into the benefits of sterilizing everything.

A small handful of scientists and authors are working hard to debunk this myth. The Union of Concerned Scientists, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics are just a few organizations struggling to bring the issue of antimicrobial agent overuse to the forefront of the political and legislative arena. Books by Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver are raising awareness among lay public and driving the interest in returning to more humane and sustainable approaches to food production.

We as consumers must take matters into our hands. We can vote with our feet when it comes to what foods we choose to purchase and where. Locally produced whole foods are as a rule better for you, your family and the environment than foods grown thousands of miles away in dubious conditions. If your doctor urges you to take antibiotics for a minor cough, just say "no" (unless there is a solid reason to think that you have a serious bacterial infection) -- you will be doing both yourself and the society a favor by limiting the opportunities for superbug development. Finally, in this technologically advanced age, there is still one very low-tech intervention that can make all the difference in disease prevention: soap and water, just like mom said.

Since bacteria have been on this Earth orders of magnitude longer than humans, and have had the chance to evolve reliable mechanisms to evade our assault on them, would it not be smarter for us to learn to live with the ones that do not cause disease peaceably instead of trying to decimate them? Although we seem to be killing them with drugs, heat and radiation, are we really killing them? Or are we creating a more resilient race that is able to do ever increasing amounts of harm to our species? 


1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent article and should be required reading by all healthcare professionals ... and the rest of us as well.