The truth is always obvious in retrospect. How could people really have thought that the sun revolves around the Earth or that Earth is flat? Yet dogma are powerful and to their adherents infallible. [Page 219]
The complex and true role that bacteria play in our lives as humans is a dark place in terms of knowledge. For most of the period during which we have known of the existence of bacteria our mantra has been, quite simply, the only good bacteria is a dead bacteria. In that vein we have pursued a medical regime that assaults bacteria with broad spectrum antibiotics in the hopes of killing what ails us in a microscopic genocide.
However, according to Martin J. Blaser in Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling our Modern Plagues this approach is misguided and may be at the root of many modern ills.
First and foremost among those modern ill is the specter of antibiotic resistant bacteria. With the introduction of penicillin, mankind was able to beat back infection for the first time in a safe and systematic way. Until penicillin the leading killer on the battlefield was not directly from enemy action, but through infection. However, modern medicine has perverted the practice of using antibiotics as the time to diagnose patients has decreased, patients seek pharmaceutical solutions, and the threat of litigation hovers. It is easier for a doctor, primarily pediatricians, to prescribe a course of antibiotics for an ailment that may only have a 10% chance of being bacterial rather than to tell the patient that it is likely the antibiotics would be nothing more than placebo.
In conjunction with medical overuse the primary user of antibiotics is agriculture. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has read any book critical of the livestock industry. While animals increasingly require antibiotics to survive the conditions of CAFOs, the original intent of prescribing animals antibiotics was to increase their size in shorter period of time.
Apparently, the same mechanism that allows that practice to work in animals may also work in humans. What works to cause a cow to be fatter for slaughter may be the same mechanism behind our great increase in obesity during the latter half of the Twentieth Century. Surely our diets of crap have contributed and our predominantly sedentary lifestyles contribute, but it is Blaser’s assertion that there is a culprit in the changing composition of our microbiome. No summary could do his analysis and explanation of the published literature justice given the succinct nature in which he writes about the topic in the book. Suffice to say, our conquering—however temporary—of bacteria through the use of antibiotics may have given us a host of modern plagues.
At times I feel like the author is using the change in our microbiome as a panacea to answer our modern ills. So much so that it feels a little new age, but there is a compelling argument made that we have subverted tens of thousands of years of co-evolution with bacteria by conducting a scorched earth war inside our bodies.
If you are not feeling up for reading the entire book—at 220 pages of text it easily fits into a summer weekend of reading—then check out the Daily Show’s interview with the author. It hits the high points with the snark that only Jon Stewart can provide.