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Desperate Times, Desperate Measures: The Rise Of The Superbug And The Crisis In Medicine

Mankind has spent the last 6000 years or so trying to subdue and conquer the forces of nature, while nature has spent the same amount of time frustrating and confounding these efforts. Man’s attempt to master the natural world has obviously not been a complete failure, as the rise of the modern civilization that we all know and sometimes love would not have been possible unless we had found ways to successfully impose our material culture across the face of the entire planet. But as successful as we have been in carving out a place for ourselves in a sometimes hostile environment, we have come nowhere close to actually conquering nature; in fact, the attempt to do so has been shown over and over again to be a fool’s mission. Human beings have gotten the best results when they have found ways to work in coordination and cooperation with the natural environment rather than fighting against it, and the rise in popularity of the off-the-grid lifestyle provides one clear example of this principle in action.

Modern science has led the way in the campaign to lift human society above its indigenous, earth-bound roots, and one area where much success has undoubtedly been achieved is in the field of medicine. Average lifespan has increased dramatically over the past two hundred years, and it is clear that western medical research and treatment practices have played a significant role in the overall improvement in human health and longevity that we have seen during this period of time.

Despite its outstanding achievements, however, the one-size-fits-all approach to attacking illness and disease that has been preferred by modern medicine clearly has its limits. Basically, western medical science treats microbes that cause sickness as if they were enemy combatants in a war, and all of its efforts have been devoted to finding ways to destroy these microscopic invaders after they appear inside the human body. But the problem with this approach is that it has always been based on the assumption that agents of disease are mindless and inflexible, incapable of responding to the brilliant techniques and strategies developed by medical professionals. What researchers and physicians have come to realize is that, on the contrary, there is a basic intelligence in nature that constantly surprises arrogant human beings who think they have everything all figured out.

The Art of War

When Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin in 1928, it ushered in a new era in medical science that ultimately led to the development of dozens of powerful antibiotics with the ability to kill bacteria. But the confidence of medical researchers that they had finally found the answer to banishing bacterial infection and disease forever proved to be premature, as bacteria have responded to the introduction of antibiotics by demonstrating a sophisticated ability to furiously mutate until they develop immunity to the drugs used to attack them.

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As wedded as they are to the military model of fighting sickness, medical science has answered this challenge in the only way they know how: by retreating to their laboratories to synthesize brand new antibiotics that can kill bacterial agents immune to the antibiotics already in use. This is of course equivalent to one of the oldest of all military strategies, where the leaders of armies instruct their technicians to come up with new and better weapons in order to jump back ahead of enemies who were smart enough to come up with countermeasures to defend themselves against the previous generation of weapons – and so the process goes, around and around without end.

But in this case, it appears the microbes are going to have the last laugh. What are now starting to appear are a type of bacteria known as “superbugs”— vigorous and vital specimens that are demonstrating widespread immunity to many different classes of antibiotics that have been routinely used to combat dangerous microbial agents. The rise of the superbug appears to suggest that bacteria have somehow gotten wise to what physicians have been up to, and in response, they are starting to mutate in a way that will make it harder and harder for medical science to stop them.

The Return of Colistin and the Polymyxins

In a number of countries around the world, superbugs have been blamed for new outbreaks of a whole variety of contagious diseases, some of which have proven deadly. In the U.S., a potentially dangerous mutated form of a microbe called Klebsiella has been sweeping through nursing homes and has now been found in thirty-seven states. This bacteria, which occurs naturally in the human bowels, is harmless when confined there; however, when spread to others through contact with unclean hands, it can cause serious pneumonia-like symptoms and has a fatality rate that may run as high as 40 percent.

Superbugs like this Klebsiella variant, while difficult to treat, have not yet acquired immunity to classes of drugs to which they have not been exposed, and for this reason physicians have begun using antibiotics known as polymyxins to treat some of these new troublesome strains. In particular, a polymyxin called colistin has proven to be so effective against some of the peskier fledgling superbugs that it has gone from total obscurity to widespread usage in a matter of only a year or two. This drug, which was originally discovered in the 1940s, had been abandoned because it has been found to cause kidney ailments in up to 50 percent of all patients who use it, a characteristic that it has in common with most other polymyxins. Physicians are rationalizing the use of colistin by claiming that most of the kidney troubles it causes are reversible, but it is a clear sign of just how desperate the situation is becoming that doctors are now turning to such a powerfully toxic substance in order to treat dangerous runaway infections. Already, some of the bacteria colistin has been used against are showing signs of becoming immune to it, and based on current patterns, many experts are anticipating the arrival of a “post-antibiotic era” when there may be no antibiotics left that actually work anymore.

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The Mass Production of the Superbug

To some extent, the arrival of the superbug was inevitable, as nature is once again showing its ability to resist all attempts at conquest. But even if it was only a matter of time before the antibiotic revolution ran its course, it may all be happening about two hundred years prematurely, thanks primarily to the massive use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals. This ridiculous practice, which has been adopted by factory farmers in the United States and elsewhere around the world, makes animals grow bigger while protecting them from the infections that frequently run rampant on filthy modern agribusiness operations. It is hard to believe, but about 70 percent of all the antibiotics used on the planet are injected into farm animals, and the circulation of all these chemicals through the food supply and the biosphere has accelerated the rise of the superbug by perhaps dozens of generations. With this much exposure to the antibiotics that were originally developed to protect human beings from disease, things are getting incredibly easy for bacteria, which are having very little trouble developing mass immunity to chemicals that at one time would have stopped them dead in their tracks.

The list of organizations that have criticized or condemned the injection of antibiotics into food animals reads like a who’s-who of the top public health organizations, and includes the:

  • American Medical Association
  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • American Public Health Association
  • Infectious Diseases Society of America
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  • World Health Organization

The scientific studies that have established the danger of this practice have been more than good enough to convince these groups to advocate change, but the U.S. Congress remains unimpressed. Or perhaps we should say, the huge agribusiness interests that control the U.S. Congress remain unimpressed. The House and Senate have repeatedly blocked any attempt by the FDA to publicize what it knows about the folly of using antibiotics in healthy farm animals for the purposes of weight gain, and in the most recent House agriculture appropriations bill, an amendment was added by Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT) that was specifically designed (according to the Congressman himself) to prevent the FDA from prohibiting or restricting this practice in any way.

This Time, There Really Is a Wolf

Predictions about killer epidemics have become so familiar that they have begun to be regarded by most as little more than annoying background noise. Year after year of hysteria over the latest strain of the flu, which have helped the drug companies who sell vaccines pocket billions, have left the public cynical and suspicious about the utterances of public health officials who seem to be in bed with the pharmaceutical industry. But superbugs appear to represent a real, legitimate threat to the health of human beings everywhere, and if we dismiss the warnings we are being given by scientists everywhere we will be doing so at our own peril.

Once again, nature has demonstrated its ability to outsmart the best minds and the best ideas that humanity has to offer, and the threat to our collective health that we will all be facing in the years to come could be very grave indeed as a result.

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