Once upon a time, antibiotics were life-saving wonder drugs. Before the discovery of penicillin in 1928 and its first use in the 1930s and 1940s, half of all babies who died after birth succumbed to Strep (Streptococcus pyogenes) and 80 percent of Staph (Staphylococcus aureus) infected wounds were fatal.
Unfortunately, the medical, veterinary and consumer product industries have so overused antibiotics many have become worthless. Factory farmers use an estimated 70 percent of all antibiotics produced to make animals grow faster and keep infection from breaking out. Attempts by the FDA to abolish their routine use on farms are stonewalled by Big Pharma and Big Meat lobbyists.
The consumer products industry is another big culprit, adding unneeded antibiotics to toothpaste, bath soap, dish and laundry detergents and even socks, workout clothes and toys so it can charge customers more. (Check your Colgate Total — it may well have the antibiotic triclosan.) Patients and doctors add to the problem by employing antibiotics for colds and viral infections which, of course, are unaffected by antibiotics.
Antibiotic overuse has created some frightening super-germs like MRSA, VRE, C. difficile and CRE, increasingly not confined to hospitals. Why aren’t there new antibiotics to kill them? Because there is no money in synthesizing new antibiotics. “Commercial return on a new antibiotic would pale in comparison to a new treatment in areas like cancer or Alzheimer’s disease,” admits John LaMattina, former President of Pfizer’s Research and Development, in his book Devalued and Distrusted.
The few new antibiotics that make it to market seem less safe than older antibiotics. Trovan, Ketek and Raxar were withdrawn or severely restricted for causing liver damage or failure. The popular antibiotics Cipro, Levaquin, Biaxin and Z-pack10 (azithromycin) are increasingly linked to heart, muscle and tendon problems and have received new FDA warnings.
There is also new awareness of the damage that the antibiotic free-for-all causes to the environment and the human environment. Endocrine disrupting antibiotics like triclosan are linked to feminized frogs and fish and to precocious puberty in human beings. Antibiotic residues are found in municipal tap water systems, grocery store meat and in vegetables grown on manure from antibiotic-fed livestock. So much for vegetarians being safe.
Increasingly, scientists are regarding the hundreds of microbes in a person’s body as their personal “microbiome,” similar to their genome, and identifying antibiotic actions beyond temporary changes in the intestines. Researchers are tracing the role of antibiotics in chronic diseases like obesity, GERD, asthma, allergies and inflammatory bowel disease.
Like the fable about the little boy who cried “wolf” so frequently, when a real wolf appeared no one believed him, antibiotics may no longer work when we need them. In a few decades, they have gone from wonder drugs to wonder-if-they’ll-work drugs.