Summary of “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria”

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I recently watched the PBS “Frontline documentary “Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria.” It investigates 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.

Most of us realize that a big 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. And those lobbies are interested in profit, not public health.

Perhaps lesser known is that few drug companies are developing new antibiotics because it is less profitable to develop antibiotics which are taken occasionally, as opposed to drugs that need to be taken regularly for conditions like blood pressure, cholesterol, hair loss, or erectile dysfunction. This is a classic example of how the market doesn’t always serve the individual’s best interests. We may get erections and hair but die from the effects of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

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.

But private corporations answer to their shareholders—profit is their only concern. Need evidence? 1) Consider that while tobacco killed millions over decades, the tobacco industry actively covered up the problem since 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. 2) Consider that 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. 3) Consider the deadly effects of leaded gasoline, lead paint, and other lead products. Again industry profited, people died, and government saved us. Today, 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 are probably needed including the creation of a new economic system or at least serious changes to our current one. Politically we needed more global cooperation or we should grant intergovernmental bodies like the IPCC or UN more power to make states comply with international law. The fact is that many problems we confront today 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 for money, but this broadcast performed a great public service. Thanks “public broadcasting system.”

Note – The NY Times published this op-ed about the documentary.

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