Antibiotic surprise

Published January 10, 2014

Almost everyone these days uncritically accepts that the solution to antibiotic-resistant disease is to use fewer antibiotics. What about using more antibiotics? More varieties that is.

When doctors found penicillin was losing its efficacy as our first line of defense against bacterial infections, the medical community didn’t throw up its hands and use less. New antibiotics were developed! And thankfully so.

No… not stronger antibiotics. New varieties were developed that kept us ahead of the bacteria that ail us, humans and animals alike, to the point where doctors and veterinarians now have well in excess of 100 antibiotics to rely upon in fighting infection.

But now, thanks to overregulation resulting from tax-funded lobbying by anti-antibiotic, naturopathic, homeopathic, sustainability and organic activists, pharmaceutical companies have largely abandoned the development of new antibiotics. It simply does not pay to bring new antibiotic strains to market in the current regulatory environment. Pharmaceutical companies find it much simpler and more profitable to focus instead on treating phony ailments like attention-deficit disorder, obesity and erectile dysfunction.

According to anti-antibiotic activists, the root of the problem is in using growth-promoting antibiotics (GPAs, also referred to as sub-therapeutic antibiotics) in livestock feed. Back in the 1940s the agricultural community realized that by adding antibiotics to animal feed in low doses, animals not only stayed healthy but also gained more weight.

This resulted in significant reductions in the cost of meat which, naturally, drove activists crazy thanks to the misguided belief that paying less for food is bad. So they launched negative public-relations campaigns alleging that this practice was largely responsible for the increase of antibiotic-resistant diseases in humans, and that it allowed farmers to get rich quick by raising animals in unsanitary and inhumane conditions. And the next thing you knew people started to avoid using antibiotics when they fell ill under the mistaken assumption that it was the overuse of antibiotics that made them ill in the first place.

Activists fueled the fire of misunderstanding by inventing the term “superbug,” implying that bacteria were becoming stronger, requiring ever-stronger antibiotics. But the fact of the matter is that bacteria don’t become stronger when confronted with antibiotics; they simply adapt.

When a bacterium develops resistance to an antibiotic, just like when a weed develops resistance to a herbicide, we don’t resort to ever-stronger versions of antibiotics or herbicides to win the battle. Different varieties do the trick. And while the development of new antibiotics and herbicides is characterized by activists in linear, ever-increasing terms, it is more-accurately described as cyclical, like the hands on a clock.

Let’s say that we went from 0:00 to 1:00 AM when Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin – humankind’s first true antibiotic – in 1928. Now, 85 years later, we’re probably somewhere around 6:00 AM on the dial, and still have a long way to go (decades for sure) before we run the full 24 hours and return to where it all began.

This means that the antibiotics we put back on the shelf today due to antibiotic-resistant bacteria could someday be taken back off the shelf by our great-great-grandchildren and used again in the confidence that they will have the same efficacy as when they were first developed. And in the meantime, we need more varieties to continue the cycle. A couple hundred more would be nice.

This concept is more difficult to grasp than the activists’ simplistic model of bacteria that develop superpowers. It also explains how medical and veterinary science moved forward over the last century, and consistently made life better, at least until activists gained a political foothold.

There will always be those who believe we must go backwards so as to move forward. But we never stood still before. Why start now?

Let’s keep moving forward on antibiotics.