Living and surviving in a bacteria-ridden, panic-stricken world
Once upon a time, not so long ago, children were allowed to have runny noses and coughs. Colds were expected to last a few days—at the most, they were an inconvenience. Times have changed, though, and how. Aside from not wanting your child to suffer, the practical considerations of adjusting daycare and work mean adding more stress to a home with an ill child. Many parents now head straight to the drug aisle of their local pharmacy. This despite various studies warning that over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat coughs and colds aren’t safe for children under two and may not work or could seriously harm children under six.
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) are important drugs to control fever and pain in children. They are frequently bundled with combinations of antihistamines, decongestants, and cough suppressants, suggesting an all-in-one cure for the common cold and other upper respiratory tract infections (URIs). Yet, even in adults, these medications are less than helpful, and the side effects can be potentially deadly.
From all appearances, antibiotics are being overused. And overuse is one reason why antibiotics are losing their punch, making infections harder to treat. Their wide availability and use have made sure that bacteria strains have developed that will defeat the antibiotic.
That the theme for this year’s World Consumer Rights Day (15 March) is antibiotic resistance is just about right and timely. What started off as a medical miracle in the later part of the 20th century has metamorphosed into what is possibly the biggest public health danger of our time. There is no scientific consensus on an appropriate level of antibiotic prescribing. Experts say chances of resistance increase when antibiotics are not used in the required dosage or for the prescribed duration or are taken for the wrong reasons, allowing bacteria to survive and adapt. In any case, it is a cycle that is vicious in the real sense of the word – bacteria will inevitably find ways of resisting the antibiotics developed by humans, forcing us to develop stronger antibiotics, or even resistance-resisting super-drugs, to keep new resistance from developing and to prevent the existing resistance from spreading.
Come to think of it, in these days of epidemics going viral mindless of boundaries and being a matter of one infected individual flying into another country, who would think twice before having an antibiotic administered? Just that we tend to forget that if we are usually healthy and well, our immune system will take care of most infections by itself.
We are so used to expecting everything over the counter, over everything and everybody else, over and above, over and over again, that the context itself gets lost. We no longer know the why of most things. Just that we expect miracles at every corner, so that our busy lives can go on, undeterred by sickness, body clock, mind clock, and suchlike. Becoming more robotic than human, we perhaps cannot anymore tell the difference between antibodies and antibiotics, between banishing symptoms and treating the root cause. Desperate situations call for even more desperate resolutions. And while governments, policymakers, and scientists work on course-correcting measures, can we start revisiting – and revising – our own ideas and priorities and start somewhere? The fight against antibiotic resistance has just begun and we all have our roles to play.