Our antibiotics price-tag: weaker, more vulnerable

Unhappy fat girl
Galloping obesity – the one effect of antibiotics nobody wants to talk about

They save lives.

Modern surgery would be impossible without them.

Anywhere an incision needs infection control – unthinkable without effective antibiotics to protect us from harmful pathogens.

Introducing non-miracles

Wonder-drugs, but beginning to be useless.

Because after more than half a century of intensive and continuous use – numerous bacteria have developed resistance – our miracle medicines are about as effective as Smarties.

Any visit to hospital, any accident or infection, and we’re all of us susceptible to an increasingly common slew of superbugs – MRSA, salmonella, streptococcus, c.difficile, TB, gonorrhoea and e.coli.

Which means doctors can’t use antibiotics in the critical situations where they need to. Not without taking chances. Or working the long way round. The hard way.

By ramping hygiene levels up high enough that infection can’t happen – washing hands, and making the surroundings sterile.

Hike up hygiene levels or else

Which is why a lot of hospitals are advancing beyond traditional wipe and scrub methods. Just because it smells of chlorine doesn’t mean it’s sterile. Nor does rub-and-scrub always disinfect everything. Under tables, behind cupboards, tangles of cable get missed out.

So does the air itself, probably 80% of any room space. More crucial than most of us ever realise, with each of us trailing around our own personal bio-plume of bacteria unique to each of us. Personal good bacteria – and personal bad bacteria – possibly harmless to ourselves, but a real problem to anyone with an underlying health condition.

Knowing this, hospitals are starting to treat air spaces just as much as surfaces. Pulsing them with ultraviolet light – or misting them up with hydrogen peroxide.

Count on it, we’ll soon start seeing similar procedures everywhere – at work, in schools, in restaurants and hotels, on planes, ships and buses – regular treatment to keep them sterile.

With good reason.

The dirty secret

Because there’s a massive downside to antibiotics that we’re only now becoming aware of – one that government and big business are trying very hard to keep quiet.

They’re making us weaker and more fragile than we were – less resilient, with less stamina – not the invincibles we once were. Compare us with our grandparents back in the in the 50’s and we’re a sorry shadow of ourselves.

All from over-use of antibiotics on an industrial scale – a world consumption 65,000 tons a year and rising rapidly.

But not in medicine – in agriculture.

You see, back in the 50’s, when antibiotics were discovered, the farming industry picked them up as healthcare for livestock. So much of farming involves mud and dirt that hygiene is next to impossible.

Antibiotics gave farmers a way of compensating for the lack of it. Their animals were protected against disease and infection by regular additions to their feed. Their profits were protected too.

Very soon, they began to notice something else. That animals on antibiotics, particularly fed from young, developed faster and bulked up heavier – bigger and more impressive, ready for market earlier – AND didn’t eat so much.

That did it. Because the principle worked everywhere. Beef cattle, dairy cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry – all of them developed faster, bigger – for even better profits.

Which is how the farming industry worldwide gets through 65,000 tons a year – in all likelihood set to double in the next ten years. Everybody wins, brilliant.

We’re the losers

Except for us.

Because the animals are on antibiotics all the time, right? Not like us, taking them for 10 days to clear an illness – regular doses in every feed, every day.

So antibiotics are in their systems – and have been for 50 years.

Which means they’re in us too. Not to the same level of course, but a regular part of our diet, every single day.

Not just in meat either. Livestock manure is highly prized as a high performance fertiliser. So there’s antibiotics in plants too – in varying quantities. In tubers such as potatoes – they’re pretty concentrated. The great British staple – mash, boiled, chips. We’re mainlining on the stuff.

You can see where this is going, can’t you? From the soil into the plants. And from the soil into the watercourses, leaching into the aquifers, into our rivers and streams, our reservoirs – ready and waiting for us at every twist of a tap.

Uh huh. For the last 50 years, every mouthful we’ve taken of pretty well anything has had antibiotics in it.

And if you think about how antibiotics work, they’re not exactly kind to us. They kill bacteria – and inside us that’s brutal. Because down in our gut there are more than 100 trillion bacteria living harmoniously – a synergistic arrangement where they do the work and we take it easy.

Bacteria digest most of our food for us. They make proteins to power us up. They even help regulate our immune system – set a good bacteria to catch a bad bacteria, a deal our bodies made with them millions of years ago, when we crawled out from under a rock.

But antibiotics kill bacteria. Not just the bad ones, but a lot of the good ones as well. Ones that we need to keep our bodies well. Suddenly clobbered because they were there. They got in the way. Killed in the fallout.

An internal atom bomb

Because that’s kind what it’s like when an antibiotic capsule dissolves in your belly. An atom bomb going off – among a population of trillions. Which is how, very often, a course of antibiotics can bring on a whole wodge of side effects – cramps, vomiting, diarrhoea, itches, rashes, wooziness, the works.

Yeah, the bad guy bacteria get killed. A lot of the good guys get killed, maimed or orphaned at the same time. They don’t perform as they used to – they’re weak, crippled, prevented from doing stuff. And it’s our bodies that suffer the consequences.

OK, penicillin – 1955. Discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming, sixty years ago.

Which means pretty well every one of us grew up with antibiotics being fed to us every day. Three meals a day, 365 days a year – every day for the thirty years we might have grown up to today – 32,850 doses of antibiotics in our system. No wonder we’re weakening!

Like allergies. Where do they come from? Rare as hen’s teeth back in the Fifties. Common as anything now. Peanuts, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat – where will it end. And why?

A glitch in the system

Because our bacteria took a hit, that’s why.

And they’ve been taking a hit every day since before birth – because Mum’s diet had antibiotics in it too. So our immune systems are reprogrammed – hacked and rearranged, so they glitch when there’s nothing there – or kick in when they’re not supposed to.

Exactly when we need more protection because antibiotics don’t work, we’re weakened, more disease-prone and less able to recover from the same cause.

All done by antibiotics.

And here’s the kicker – the final insult.

They make us bulk up too. Particularly in early years. Just like the cows and pigs and lambs and chickens. Bulk up big and develop faster.

Except we call it getting fat. Doctors call it obesity.

Yes we can blame our diet too – however we try to finagle it. Too much carbohydrates, cut back on proteins, eat more vitamins – makes no difference.

Because regardless of what we eat, it’s sure to have antibiotics in it.

And yes, fatness is in our genes – but our genes are modified by our bacteria. And our bacteria are fighting with their hands tied behind their backs.

One hell of a price-tag, hey?