6.12.2007

Trouble for antibiotics

Antibiotic resistance has been all over the news lately, with the media spotlight focused on the case of a man with extensively-drug-resistant tuberculosis who somehow eluded border checkpoints across Europe, Canada and the U.S.
We thought we had TB "licked", right? But the pesky little bug has somehow adapted to changing environmental conditions, and now modern medicine is left in a global panic when faced with the possible spread of a TB strain resistant to most available dugs. Treatment is expensive, long, and not always effective - and the specter of an even more powerful "superbug" looms large.

Hospitals, with their ubiquitous use of antibiotics, have long been havens for some ultra-potent, resistant strains of common bacteria like staph (Staphylococcus aureus). This bug can cause skin infections and systemic sepsis in the worst cases, but our immune systems usually take care of it pretty well (especially with a little Echinacea, an excellent remedy for this pathogen). In hospitals, a strain called MRSA (methycillin-resistant-staph-aureus) has been giving doctors headaches for a good while, ever since methycillin was extensively prescribed to kill bacteria that had become immune to penicillin. Now, they use vancomycin (ultra-strong antibiotic) to treat MRSA, but VRSA has already evolved and modern science has NO treatment available for this new bug. Things don't look too hopeful for the wonderdrugs that, in the 1950s, were heralded as the "end of infectious disease".

If this weren't enough, it turns out that MRSA has been spreading outside hospitals as well. A recent study showed a seven-fold increase in these cases over the period from 2000 to 2005, and this is just in the Chicago area. This is a concern because not only are these bacteria resistant to antibiotics, but they are generally more aggressive in the physiology as well, and can become lethal more quickly and easily than their original counterparts. Nevertheless, they still respond well to herbal treatment, especially if detected early.

In the wake of these types of reports (which have been ongoing), along with analyses that show how widely overused antibiotics are, modern medicine has been urging a less liberal prescription strategy so we can have these powerful drugs available when we really need them (i.e., not for your common cold)! And here's another reason: last month a broad analysis of over 13,000 children in Manitoba, Canada showed that antibiotic use in the first year of life substantially increases asthma later on, presumably by confusing and weakening the kids' immunity. The more frequent and more powerful the antibiotics, the greater the risk for asthma.

So, in the end, antibiotics seem to be less effective as time goes on, and actually quite harmful in some cases. More and more, it will be up to herbalists to pick up the pieces of our short and misguided love affair with these drugs. If you want to learn more, here's a good place to start.

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