Dying from Infections

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.

 

2 thoughts on “Dying from Infections

  1. I watched that. I have followed this issue for awhile, that and these outbreaks of polio and measles (both preventable illnesses) and these new terrifying as-yet-unidentified diseases, which I suspect are related to our excessive exposures to chemicals and medications via the food supply and our degrading climate.

    What scares me the most about the antibiotic issue (both in food and in the medical arena) and the preventable illness resurgence (and anti-vaccine movement) is the amount of ignorance attached to these decisions people are making. I have worked in healthcare for many years, so I see this crisis both in the patient/consumer population and in the medical community. Many patients, who are also parents in many cases, withhold vaccinations based on some article by an actress they found on natural news.com or similar, and they love to say “This is my decision and it will not affect anyone else’s kids so its not a problem.” Well, as I suspect we are about to find out in this country, it DOES affect other people’s kids, and its going to be a pretty big problem. Some kids will contract measles and fight it and come out relatively OK. But the kid sitting next to that kid in school might be immunocompromised or just not as physiologically fortunate and will succomb, and spread the infection in the process.
    Regarding antibiotics outside of food, its pretty common for people to rush to the doctor, or even worse, the Emergency Room, every time they have a cold. They will demand antibiotics from the physicians, and what surprises me most is that a large number of physicians comply even though they know antibiotics are neither necessary or effective for the illness. Its a very lackadaisical attitude, and a dangerous one, as we are starting to see. But the issues in the healthcare system and medical education system are many and way too complex to get into here, but this is one tiny piece of it.
    As for food, it still baffles me that it is acceptable to the majority that our food is full of medicine. Maybe its because I am old enough to have lived before stickers appeared on milk cartons and packages of meat declaring “Antibiotic and growth hormone free!” I never imagined such a thing would even be needed, because years ago we would be horrified at the thought of our food supply being tampered with to this extent. I myself spend much time seeking out “safe” sources for eggs, dairy, and the small amount of meats I consume, but it strikes me as crazy how much effort is necessary to accomplish this. And I always feel demoralized and like no matter how careful I am or how much I support small growers and farms, and grow my own, it will never be enough.
    I tend to cringe at the concept of large scale government control, but someone or something needs to intervene. And I agree more with the idea of it involving multi national governments, as it certainly is a global issue.

  2. thanks for the thoughtful comments. I have been urging parents to have their children immunized for many years now since the anti-vaccination craze began. “Large scale governmental control” built your highways, bridges, cares for your national parks and makes sure your water is safe, and the list goes on and on. California built the best university system in the world–the tuition was free! And brought water to all its citizens, thanks to Governor Pat Brown. Unfortunately he lost to Ronald Reagan who told the public that government was out of control and medicare and medicaid would mean the end of liberty. Now 40 years later you see the results of the reagan revolution–a crumbling infrastructure and inequality out of control. All this began in California with Reagan and in the US all the economic indicators changed in 1980 with Reagan cutting taxes hence no public services and all the money ending up in the hands of the wealthy. This deserves a book length discussion. I would suggest anything by world class economists like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglatz or Robert Reich. Good luck.

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