The government’s job is to protect us. At least that’s what they continue to blather on about whenever they get a chance. To this end, they mandate helmets, cooking temperature, rounded corners, etc, etc, etc. Here in Colorado, there is a law preventing daycare centers from allowing their young charges to go outside if their parents didn’t provide to the center an appropriate sun screen lotion. Pity the poor child who must sit inside and watch his friends play outside on a cloudy day because his mother was too busy to pack the sunscreen.
But I digress.
One of the ways the government protects us is to outlaw dangerous drugs. You know, crystal meth and sudafed; heroin and margarine; crack and foie gras. This Big Mother attitude appears to have no boundaries. We have not yet seen anything that is out of the reach of those who would put safety way ahead of liberty.
Nearly a hundred years ago, Alexander Fleming discovered that certain spores in common bread mold decimated any bacteria that dared get near. This discovery revolutionized health care and turned an infection from a life-threatening condition into a minor inconvenience.
That is, until the use of antibiotics became commonplace. We see these drugs in everything from dish soap to waterless hand cleaner to tissue paper. Apparently there is a demand for such items, driven by the modern soccer mom phenomenon. This is the cultural situation that vilifies parents who don’t do everything for their precious child, from pre-natal college applications to back-seat DVD players to the strange, disturbing helicopter-parent phenomenon.
Dang it! I’m digressing again.
Anyway, these safety-conscious individuals, and they don’t necessarily have to be parents, are lured into the sense of security that they are doing their best to protect their family from bacterial infection. Washing the counters after every meal will keep away those pesky bacteria. We see plenty of cartoon animation in the television commercials that prove that bacteria cower away when mom sprays the counter with a-n-t-i-b-i-o-t-i-c-s.
Cartoon cuteness notwithstanding, the truth is a bit different. There’s a saying that goes: everything that does not kill us makes us stronger. This is particularly true in the area of bacterial evolution. Penicillin worked because bacteria had the benefit of millions of years of replicating without any resistance. The relatively weak penicillin decimated these bacteria because it caught them off-guard.
But a couple of the beastly things survived because they had developed some random genetic abnormality that the deadly penicillin didn’t quite kill. These survivors were probably sick, but managed to survive and procreate, passing these stronger genes on to their offspring.
Welcome to natural selection. Whatever it was in their genetic makeup that allowed them to dodge the penicillin bullet made the species stronger. The next time their progeny was attacked with penicillin, even more of them survived, and the human doctors treating the human patients were puzzled that it took a bit longer to treat this patient than it took to treat the last one.
Fast-forward a couple decades and you can see the trend. Bacteria develop random mutations that make them weaker or stronger, and each time the stronger batch survives and procreates, carrying it’s superior DNA to the next generation.
Picture the aforementioned soccer mom getting a prescription of antibiotics for a sniffling Junior. Antibiotics shock the system and make you weak while the war battles on in your system. Antibiotic warriors dispatched by the pill you take are mounting a no-holds-barred attack on the bacteria they are designed to destroy.
Little junior is sick, but he gets more miserable whenever mom gives him the pill. The bottle of pills clearly says that they should be taken until they are gone. No exceptions. There is a reason for this instruction, as you’ll see.
After a couple of days, Junior feels better, but now gets sick when mom just gives him the pills. So mom ignores the directions on the prescription bottle and is grateful for the doctor who made little Junior feel better.
But mom has just created a stronger monster. There’s a reason why the doctor prescribed seven days of antibiotics. It only takes five or six days to kill the strongest individuals, and so the seventh day is just a safety measure. By stopping the treatment in three days, mom has put the world more at risk from Junior’s little guests. Junior is feeling better now because his bacteria are weak, but not all are dead. The next time he sneezes or coughs at school he will unwittingly give the stronger bacteria a chance to find their way into the next host.
Repeat a few thousand generations (bacterial generations, not human generations) and you have created a monster.
Any doctor will tell you that the casual use of antibiotics is not keeping us any more healthy, but they are weeding out the weak beasties from our counter top every time we spray the 409 cleaner, and making the strongest even stronger. Doctors are running out of more and more powerful antibiotics to battle these stronger bacteria, leading to a quiet crisis. Just ask Jim Henson’s family. The beloved Muppets creator died in a hospital from a minor infection that became a major infection that was strong enough to survive anything the doctors threw at it. This happens again and again in hospitals as doctors try newer and newer treatments for the stronger and stronger bugs. Their arsenal is getting thinner and thinner.
A case in point: Tuberculosis. TB, a condition caused by a wily bacterium that lives in the lungs, was almost obliterated in this country in the ’80’s when it had a sudden resurgence. It tended to settle into the poorer areas of the country where people didn’t have the knowledge or whereabouts to keep it at bay. These people tended to go to public health facilities, where they were given the mandatory six- to 12-month regimen of drugs to fight the infection. Like Junior above, they tended to stop taking the antibiotics once they felt better and, because it was the government that was “carefully following their progress," there was no one to keep them following their prescription.
As a result, only the strongest TB bacteria survived, ready and willing to infect the next victim.
In all of these cases, ignorance has led to a situation where just about every bacterium alive today laughs at the relatively weak penicillin, that wonder drug that saved millions of lives.
So where does this take us? My assertion is that the drug war is upside down. While the government is wringing its hands and trying to save a couple of addicts at a great cost in dollars and liberty, it is giving huge subsidies to the manufacturers of antibiotics in the name of public health. All the while, single-celled opportunists are poised to win in their battle of evolution.
If there must be a government-sponsored war on drugs (and that's a big u2018if') it should leave the victimless crimes alone and go after the drugs that, when used improperly, imperil billions.
“Just Say ‘No’ to Purell.”
February 17, 2007