Instapundit linked to a shocking and scary article by Maryn McKenna on the shrinking effectiveness of antibiotic drugs. This is a subject that strikes very close to home. In my novel, The Catrobat, Captain Dan Boyd who is loosely based on my father, nearly dies of Viral Pneumonia. During and after World War II, he spent several years in the hospital where he likely contracted the disease. Had it not been for penicillin, he almost certainly would have died and I would never have been born. In the winter of 1958, I contracted tonsillitis, which the doctors treated with antibiotics until they could bring my fever down to the point that it would be safe to operate. Even with those drugs, I nearly died and I suffered many years afterwards from the disease. But, I survived.
Fast forward to 1996, my mother had a heart attack. She reluctantly underwent ill-advised open heart surgery. The surgery failed because she had contracted VRE (Vancomycin Resistant Enterococcus), a bug that ate up the stitches and caused congestive heart failure. Vancomycin was the strongest antibiotic at the time but the bugs had learned how to survive it and they thrived in nursing home residents.
Maryn McKenna paints a grim vision that if nothing is done, we will slip back into an condition where the risks we now take for granted in ordinary life could once again become deadly. Would life become as Thomas Hobbes described the State of Nature?
McKenna argues that profligate use of antibiotics in agriculture and medicine has made the bugs immune. It has been well known that persons go to emergency clinics with the common cold and doctors have prescribed antibiotics, which are useless against colds, just to get rid of them using the antibiotic as a placebo. What is less well known is the profligate use of antibiotics in agriculture on chickens and farm animals. This may have done far more damage. This is a must read article. Thanks again to Glenn Reynolds, who in the link from earlier this year, discussed the coming drugs that might supplant antibiotics.
In some ways, the story of antibiotics reminds me our current economic stimulus policies. Like antibiotics, the government keeps pumping debt into the system but the debt no longer stimulates the economy aside from pumping up the price of real estate and stocks.