Thursday, August 11, 2011
The Killers Within by Michael Shnayerson
My mother gave me a bunch of books a couple of weeks ago, and this was the first one I picked out of the stack. It's probably not the easiest, quickest read of the bunch, but the subject was fascinating, and the author tries to give us a little humanizing background on each of the biologists, doctors and researchers mentioined in the stories.
One of the most common ways that bacteria become resistant to antibiotics occurs when patients are given antibiotics for some sort of infection, and then, when they get to feeling better, they stop taking the antibiotic before it has had sufficient time to kill all of the bacteria in their system. Those bacteria which are left are the ones with some sort of natural resistance to that particular medicine, and will pass on their resistance to all of their descendents. Those bugs can then be passed on to other people over time, and the next time that antibiotic is used to combat them, it will not be as effective.
Bacteria, according to conventional wisdom, can easily be killed by various topical agents, like bleach, or by boiling infected clothing in water. Unfortunately for convention, some bacteria form hard little capsules called spores that can go dormant for long periods of time. These spores can survive for twenty years or more, and even up to two hours in boiling water. When conditions are right, they can reactivate and infect new hosts.
Drug companies spend enormous amounts of money promoting their new formulations. "With most kinds of new drugs, a huge marketing campaign might do no medical harm. With antibiotics, it was, perversely, the worst possible way to go. The more a new antibiotic was used, the more quickly bacteria managed, by mutation or importing a gene, to develop a resistance mechanism to it." I hadn't realized that different types of bacteria were able to swap genes back and forth, so that they all have a stock of potentially useful weapons to use in their war for survival.
Another contributing factor to the increase in bacteriological resistances has been the widespread use of antibiotics as growth enhancers in poultry, swine and cattle. Small amounts of antibiotics in their feed have increased the animals' growth, but people who work with the animals, from those who raise them, to those who slaughter them, are then exposed to those antibiotics and the bacteria in the animals, and resistances have been shown to cross species barriers to humans, with often tragic results.
The author paints a chilling picture of the future, when antibiotic resistant bacteria continue to increase their numbers and types. It's been happening since the introduction of antibiotics in the 20th century, and researchers are frantically trying to stay ahead in the arms race. Read at your own risk - of peace of mind.