Last night PBS “Frontline” aired a wonderful documentary entitled: “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria.” It investigated the rise of deadly drug-resistant bacteria. As the world health organization has recently reported we may be heading for a post-antibiotic world where common infections will again kill.
Almost all of us are aware that a large part of the problem is that most antibiotics are fed to livestock. Everyone knows that we shouldn’t engage in that practice, but the agricultural and pharmaceutical lobbies are just too powerful to defeat on this issue. The clients of those lobbies–private citizens and corporations–are interested in profit not public health.
Perhaps lesser known is that few drug companies are developing new antibiotics. The reason is that it is less profitable to develop antibiotics which are taken occasionally, as opposed to drugs that are taken regularly for conditions like blood pressure, cholesterol, hair loss, or erectile dysfunction. This is a classic example of how the market does not always serve an individual’s best interests. It may give us erections and hair, but we might have to have an infected leg amputated.
How real is the problem? The CDC claims:
Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.
Only government research supported by tax dollars is likely to solve such large problems. The purpose of good government is to act in the interest of the common good. This is their raison d’être. Private corporations by comparison answer to their shareholders–profit is their only concern. While tobacco killed millions over decades, the tobacco industry actively covered up the problem–tobacco was a profitable product. But government slowly exposed the problem by placing constraints on the sale of tobacco and publicizing it as a public health hazard. After decades of polluting the air, earth, and water, only the creation of the EPA stemmed the tide, successfully enacting measures to clean up the environment. As global climate change proceeds unabated, fossil fuels companies and their allies again lie and deceive. And why not? It is profitable to burn fossil fuels. Only governmental power is likely to stop the ruination our fragile climate.
From an economic standpoint even larger steps probably need to be taken–including the creation of a new economic system. Politically what is needed is cooperation between countries, or granting an intergovernmental bodies like the IPCC or UN the coercive power to make individuals comply with international law, or a full-fledge global government. Many problems we confront today–including antibiotic resistance–cross international borders.
So thanks PBS for an informative documentary. It wasn’t profitable to investigate this for a small audience, and without adequate public funds you are forced to beg, but last night you performed a great public service. By the way. PBS stands for “the public broadcasting system.”
Note – A few days after this post the NY Times published this op-ed.