Humbug! Antibiotics: A Lesson in Responsibility

One thing that annoys me more than nearly anything else are buzz words. We see and hear them every day, mostly in advertisements. They’re words a lot of people have either very positive or very negative reactions to. But after talking to people, I often find they don’t actually comprehend what these words mean, or why they’re important and that is what gets to me. Being a cook, I take particular notice of those used on food products like “locally grown”, “organic” or “antibiotic free”. Antibiotics are used in more than just our food though, and what was once a miracle cure has now largely taken on a negative reputation. But why? Are they really that bad? What happened to the celebration of life saving antibiotics?

To understand what antibiotics are and what they do, we should first understand what bacteria are and how they differ from viruses. Bacteria are living organism with full strands of both DNA and RNA inside a functional cell and able to reproduce. Viruses consist of DNA or RNA protected by a layer of proteins and sometimes fats which can only replicate by infecting a host cell which then spawns copies of the virus. Viruses are not considered living organisms. With that out of the way, lets get back to the antibiotics themselves!

Antibiotics made their world wide debut in 1928 with the discovery of penicillin by Dr. Alexander Flemming. This became a vital resource during World War II. Following the war it was used to treat diseases such as diphtheria, meningitis and scarlet fever along with many more. It lead to the development of other antibiotics, saved millions of lives and is still commonly used today.

Though different antibiotics work in different ways, they all in one way or another attack living cells. Penicillin for example inhibits the ability of bacterium to regrow cell walls, which routinely break down and regrow. This causes the cell to rupture and die. However medical science in now facing a different problem. We’ve come to rely on antibiotics too much. The bacteria are mutating and developing immunities to the drugs which once killed them. Antibiotics are so commonly used that they wipe out every bacterium except those few which have mutated and become immune. That means they are the only ones reproducing and eventually they become the only ones period. Survival of the fittest.

Doctors are pressured by patients to prescribe them antibiotics for every little thing, often times things which antibiotics won’t even help such as viruses. Remember the difference between them? With no cellular structure the antibiotics have nothing to target and thus do not effect viruses (that’s why we have vaccinations). But even those things which are susceptible to antibiotics don’t always need them. We have immune systems and they’re pretty amazing. We need to let them do their job. It helps avoid resistance to antibiotics and the more our immune system gets used the stronger it becomes.

It’s not only prescribed medicines though. Look around your daily life. Have you used an antibiotic hand soap today? Or maybe antibacterial wipes or sprays? While all these things do have uses they aren’t necessary for constant every day use. We live in a world ruled by the fear of germs, but you’d be surprised how resistant to bacteria a healthy body is. Unless you have a weakened immune system, regular soap is more than enough to keep your hands clean.

This brings me back to “antibiotic free” food. The situation is the same. When people realized how effective they were in humans, they started giving antibiotics to farm animal. They became sick less often which meant they grew faster and larger, which in turn dropped the price of food. But animals are being given these antibiotics across the board. They aren’t being used only when needed, but as part of every animal’s regular diet.

There’s another kind of antibiotic which the bacteria them selves have been using since the dawn of life to kill off the competition. Bacteriocins are proteins produced by bacteria which are toxic specifically to closely related strains of the same bacteria. These can be put to use medicinally to target very specific illnesses and help avoid over use. Any other bacteria which happen to be present can be taken care of by the immune system and not given the chance to mutate. There is still a chance of resistance to these, but they help to diversify and can be easily augmented as the bacteria mutate.

Antibiotics have saved billions of lives and really are one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century. But we need to start being more responsible with them. Over use and misuse of them will cause us to lose these amazing works of modern medicine. We don’t need to cut them out of our lives entirely. I think that limited use in farming is fine and will continue to help produce more food. We need to trust our doctors to prescribe us what we need, not what we think we need and to let our immune system do what they’ve evolved to do. If we as a world wide society can do these things, then when we really get sick antibiotics will be there to do what they do best and save lives.

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