Drug vs. the Bug

A few years ago I suffered a painful sinus infection, and visited a
physician, who told me, ‘I used to prescribe two weeks of
antibiotics for this, but now I find that isn’t enough, so I
prescribe three weeks of antibiotics.’

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.

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