Monique Keiran: Antibiotics coming from the strangest places

‘Don’t do it,” I advise Nature Boy every time we travel in less-fortunate foreign parts. “If you eat that, you’ll get sick.” I remind him of what happened in (fill in the blank with any south Asian or Latin American country we’ve visited). “They had as many cockroaches running about as they do here.”

“But those vegetables look so good.”

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Nature Boy usually risks it.

Then we spend days bound by his bowels to our rooms, or until his antibiotics nail the sick-making critters he ingests.

Somehow, he doesn’t learn.

He has, however, learned to bring a full course of antibiotics with him when he travels. The drugs limit his toilet time, and permit him to learn all over again not to eat leafy greens or other suspect food when visiting countries with lower levels of sanitation.

Just one century ago, common illnesses like the food poisoning Nature Boy insists on courting frequently killed people. Other diseases, such as whooping cough, scarlet fever and tuberculosis, also often carried death sentences.

Things started to change for us here in the privileged world in 1928. Scientist Alexander Fleming performed a seeming miracle when he isolated a compound from common bread mould that destroyed many of the bacteria that shortened our lives.

Penicillin conquered pneumonia, cholera, typhoid, tetanus and many other illnesses. That one drug led to the development of more than 25 other antibiotics.

It was as if those of us in wealthy countries had been granted a reprieve from suffering.

No wonder we went overboard and used the drugs to fight any kind of sniffle, ache or fever. After seven generations, we now take good health for granted. We expect to recover — quickly — from simple infections, even those that were once often fatal. We almost consider recovery a right, enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or, better yet, our DNA.

But, as we know from past and current reports about persistent and fatal infections in hospitals and other health-care facilities on the south Island, in the Lower Mainland and elsewhere, bacteria are catching up to the past century’s medical advances. Many microbes have already overcome many of the bacteria-suppressing drugs in our arsenal. In the ever-shifting reality of micro-evolution, society-wide use, overuse and abuse of antibacterials have led to hardier bacterial strains that are resistant, if not outright immune, to the most common antibiotics.

Ignorance helps drive the problem. Many people do not understand how or when to take antibiotics.

Antibiotics work against only bacteria and some few fungal infections. They cannot control viruses. By using drugs to combat influenza or the common cold virus, or by prematurely stopping antibiotics taken to fight bacterial infections, patients succeed in eliminating susceptible, perhaps friendly, bacteria from their systems while leaving the resistant, nasty microbes to multiply unchecked.

The exposure to antibiotics also stresses bacteria, which stimulates greater free exchange of genes among the microbes and increases the likelihood of the bugs developing drug resistance.

Medical professionals have worked hard in recent years to educate us. The current Do Bugs Need Drugs? and Antibiotic Awareness Week campaigns form part of that effort.

Another issue is that no new antibiotic has been added to the medicine chest since 2003. The sources that generated antibiotics in the past — soil, for instance — have been explored and provide few additional opportunities for new antibiotics that the bugs haven’t yet developed resistance to.

Scientists, however, continue searching. For instance, they’ve discovered a new antibiotic in the ocean off California that kills drug-resistant superbugs. Other researchers have found that pandas produce an antibiotic in their blood that also defeats superbugs. Other, often bizarre, sources being investigated for potential bacteria-killing drugs include cockroach brains, frog skin, cone snails, shark livers, sponges and other obscure sea creatures.

Having a drug like Ciprofloxacin on hand might no longer be a guarantee in Nature Boy’s version of food roulette.

However, in coming years, he might have reason to thank the lowly, icky, dirty cockroach for his continued good health — as well as, possibly, his travel illnesses.

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