Imagine the world in 1928. At that time most bacterial diseases were untreatable, though it had been discovered that some molds could inhibit the growth of bacteria. In that year Sir Alexander Fleming accidently leaves a moldy fruit next to a sample of Staphylococcus Aurora (commonly known as a staph infection). He noticed that the Penicillium notatum mold was destroying a colony of the bacterium.
It would take another 12 years before penicillin would be available for use but the drug got its start right there. Countless lives were saved on the battlefield (in World War II the people of World War I were not as lucky). Penicillin became the first antibiotic that consistently worked, and was a triumph for science. The germ theory had certainly proved its importance.
Today we live in a world surrounded by antibiotics that can kill just about any bacterium, in fact, we can even find antibacterial hand soap that will kill the bacteria before they ever enter your body. It certainly seems as though we have won the war against bacteria (although we have not yet won against viruses).
Unfortunately, there was a kink in the armor. Superbugs, as they have been called, are popping up. Methicillan-resistant Staphylococcus Aurora, or MRSA, has begun to terrorize hospitals. Antibiotic-resistant strains of Tuberculosis are coming out. Diseases we thought we had defeated have come back with striking force.
Some of the blame certainly falls on us, the general public taking the drugs. We have a tendency to take the drugs only until we feel better instead of finishing off the prescription. This allows resistant strains to live on and pass on the resistant gene. All of the blame cannot fall on us, however. Some of the blame falls on the medical community.
It is understandable that there would be a lot of excitement upon the discovery that we could kill off nasty disease causing bacteria, yet nobody remembered to check at what cost. As the medical community is now discovering, antibiotics don't just kill those bad bacteria, they kill the good ones as well.
It turns out that your body has developed a very symbiotic relationship with bacteria. From birth we have all kinds of bacteria in our body, bacteria that live in our stomach and intestines and the other organs. In fact, the number of bacteria in our bodies outnumber our own cells! E. Coli naturally lives in our intestines and aids with digestion, it is only when it spreads to other parts of the body (usually through ingestion) that it becomes harmful. We have a large bacterial community that is essential to our health right in (and on) our body.
Using antibacterial soap and ingesting antibiotics kill these helpful bacteria. So it is a double edged sword, so to speak. We can kill the bad, but we also will kill the good. The good bacteria aid so much in our body that they are necessary to our survival, while the bad bacteria can threaten it.
Of course, to suggest that the use of antibiotics be discontinued would be crazy. Antibiotics have done so much good for the world. A better suggestion would be for doctors to prescribe antibiotics only when absolutely necessary, if the body can fend off the disease itself let it do so. Of course, the patient would need to be sure to complete the treatment in full as well. Perhaps more targeted antibiotics would be useful as well, instead of broad spectrum antibiotics that kill most bacteria.
It certainly is a strange world we live in; we spend a tremendous amount of time trying to kill off bacteria, only to find out that not all bacteria are bad. Let us be cautious on our future journey to keep the appropriate balance.
Jeremie is a SUNY Plattsburgh graduate. Comments and Suggestions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.