Overuse of antibiotics may lower resistance to illness
I then sought the advice of a naturopath (naturopathic treatment avoids drugs), who gave me a homeopathic remedy that stopped the pain immediately, and herbal teas that had my head cleared in less than a week. When I told him I had been disappointed that the first doctor offered no alternatives to antibiotics, he replied, 'That's all she's got.'
Our very dependence on antibiotics appears to be bringing about their demise. Some scientists are declaring a new medical crisis: the emergence and rapid progression of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Newsweek (March, 1995) magazine declared 'the end of antibiotics' in a story documenting the many cases of bacterial infections that would not respond to antibiotic treatment. Time (Sept. 12, 1994) reported that several strains of tuberculosis that can't be treated with common antibiotics have emerged, and that even common staph and strep infections are becoming increasingly difficult to treat.
The problem appears to be threefold: first, in the very origins of the antibiotics, which Discover points out (Aug. 1994) were first created by bacteria -- the penicillium mold. Therefore, author Mark Caldwell reasons, it should come as no surprise that bacteria 'might also be able to defend themselves from attack.'Caldwell chalks this up to 'blind but relentless evolution.'
Second, although bacteria would make these adaptations even if we used antibiotics sparingly, overuse affords countless opportunities for bacteria to get to know their enemy and adapt.
Even though the evidence has been mounting that antibiotics are not effective against most middle ear infections, particularly in children, and may even contribute to recurring infections because they interfere with the body's own immune system, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that they are prescribed for fluid in the middle ear 99 percent of the time.
In a report released last summer, the Project on Government Oversight (PGO), an independent watchdog group in Washington, said that a scholar at the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine concluded that antibiotics were no more effective than placebos in treating middle ear infections. Yet the Department of Health and Human Services still recommends antibiotics for ear infections.
This may be especially unfortunate if, as practitioners of alternative medicine claim, most children who suffer recurring ear infections have an allergy to some food, most often dairy products. One ear, nose, and throat specialist in Florida, Dr. Fred Pullen, has claimed that as many as 75 percent of children referred to him to have tubes inserted in their ears because of chronic ear infections responded so well to eliminating dairy products from their diets that the surgery was unnecessary.
Another breeding ground for resistant strains of bacteria is agriculture. Newsweek reports that 'farm animals receive 30 times more antibiotics than people do,' mostly to speed growth and boost yields. One argument against bovine growth hormone is that it leads to more frequent mastitis in dairy cows and subsequent antibiotic use.
Many doctors also blame the human habit of stopping antibiotic use as soon as symptoms improve, allowing resistant strains to survive and flourish. But this may not be a valid criticism, says Dr. Michael Schmidt, co-author of Beyond Antibiotics: Healthier Options for Families (North Atlantic Press, 1994): 'Some [researchers] say that if you use antibiotics too long, that's what creates resistance [to antibiotics]. It hasn't been proven either way.'
Another factor is the long-term effects of antibiotics on the body's own system of defending against disease. The PGO report documents what many parents already know, that individuals who are repeatedly exposed to antibiotics develop their own resistance to the drugs and must be dosed with more expensive antibiotics, and more of them, in order to recover from repeated infections. This, in turn, often leads to chronic health problems because of the antibiotics themselves.
In Beyond Antibiotics the authors write that because antibiotics kill 'the friendly helpful bacteria in the digestive tract,' they provide a setting where harmful parasites and fungi can flourish, which in turn are often misdiagnosed as bacterial infections for which antibiotics are again prescribed, aggravating the situation.
While scientists are working to develop new antibiotics -- which are destined to become obsolete as bacterial evolution marches onward -- growing numbers of consumers are turning to alternative medical treatments believed to boost individual resistance to illness.
Therapies such as homeopathy, herbalism, acupuncture, nutritional supplements, and chiropractic are all believed to bring about healing by stimulating the body's own immune response. Research into the efficacy of these methods has been limited by a lack of funding, a problem the new Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health hopes to address. But its budget of $2 million pales compared with the billions spent by pharmaceutical companies to develop and promote new drugs.
Proponents argue that therapies dating back hundreds of years -- homeopathy may be one of the youngest of the 'alternatives' at 200 years old -- have already stood the test of time. Antibiotics, on the other hand, appear to have outlived their usefulness after only 50 years.