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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Vaccinating our way to Poor Health

Antibiotic Resistance: From Todar's Online Textbook of Bacteriology
In the early 1970's in high school biology we learned the difference between viruses and bacteria.  Bacteria were larger than viruses, easier to grow, at least in a high school biology context.

A key element of this had to do with antibiotics like penicillin.  Antibiotics impeded the growth of bacteria but not viruses so no amount of antibiotics would affect a viral infection.  At the time penicillin was still standard fare for bacterial infections - but it was not dispensed lightly.

As a child I had a number of "strep throat" infections.  Each time my mother dutifully took me to the doctor where a "throat culture" was taken to ensure I actually had a strep throat.  Only after such a determination was made scientifically, i.e., someone somewhere I supposed cultured and identified the strep bacteria from the swab they took of my throat, was penicillin dispensed to treat the problem.

By the time I took high school biology my bouts of strep had passed.

During the 1980's when my own children were small the dispensing of penicillin changed dramatically.

With four children its was not often during the winter when someone wasn't sick.  Mrs. Wolf and I quickly learned to identify various types of infections, e.g., ear problems, throat problems, and so on.  So trips to the doctor typically occurred only when we were in new territory, i.e., a fever too high, rubbing ears (ear infection), and so on.

As time went by it became clear that the dispensing of antibiotics had taken on an entirely new form: willy-nilly mass distribution.

I distinctly remember one visit where the doctor inspected one of our children who was running a high fever.

"It's a viral infection," he pronounced, "here's a prescription for amoxicillin."

But, Mrs. Wolf and I protested, that won't help a viral infection.

The doctor eyed us with suspicion.

Most parents demand antibiotics, he offered, they insist on them.

From that point on, even to us as lay people outside the medical field, it was clear that something was wrong with the medical system.

It was around this time that stories about antibiotics "wearing out" for fighting infections started to appear in various parenting magazines.  (In those days there was no internet and magazines were about the only means you had to discover the latest thinking on things like this.)

Stories also emerged that in other countries, like India, the dispensing of antibiotics required no prescription at all.

It became "common knowledge" that the doctors were "over dispensing" antibiotics - apparently at the demands of parents.

The penicillin of my day became the amoxicillin of my children.  Today antibiotics are dispensed in Z-packs or worse.  Something in my day or even my children's day reserved for things like TB.

Antibiotics were discovered accidentally.  I heard an interview with the wife of the discoverer on the radio.  Apparently somehow some mold penetrated some bacteria-infected plates the researcher had set aside for some reason only to later discover that the bacteria would not grow where the mold was present.

The discovery languished as a curiosity for many years until technology was developed to isolate and extract the elements of the mold that were impeding the bacteria's growth.

Unfortunately, just like stories such as "Pandora's Box" describe, the consequences of using the newly discovered magic wand are often overlooked - at least until the end of the story when the unpleasant unpleasant or even deadly results become all too apparent.

Medical science in the 1950's, 60's and early 70's was suspicious of antibiotics and rightly assumed that they should only be used when some test determined their use appropriate.  According to this, as an example, within eight to twelve years after introduction in "wide spread use" bacteria develop resistance.

No doubt the demands of parents in the 1970's and 80's pushed the dispensing model into new territory.

One thing I find interesting is that today dentists still happily (and effectively) use, for example, amoxicillin for fighting dental infection.  One imagines that its use is not as "wide spread" or that the bacteria infecting your dental work are "more susceptible" to the use of antibiotics.

But as with all modern "magic" there is a downside that comes back to bite us (just as in "Pandora's Box). 

In this case its things like drug resistant TB - a disease on the rise across the world - and something antibiotics can no longer control.

But that's not the worst of it.

Many diseases, like polio, can be controlled with vaccinations.  And polio, at least in the US, was wiped out by a vaccination program.

Unfortunately vaccinations, like antibiotics, have their own "tail" which is coming back around to bite us all.

For example, there is the "autism" debate - many people believe that too many vaccines cause "autism."  There is also widespread belief that vaccines contain too much mercury and that they may be the root cause of the widespread outbreak of "peanut allergies" seen today.

So what will be done to control TB in the future?

According to the CDC 95% of a "herd" (humans or otherwise) must be vaccinated in order to prevent the spread of disease.

But today, in many parts of the country, vaccine usage is down to 80% or less, at least according to this and this.  And this means that regardless of vaccinations disease will spread.

Today there are vaccines for many diseases that, as a child, were routine: mumps, chicken pox, measles.  And while we have dramatically reduced these problems I fear we have created a raft of new, more serious ones to replace them.

Measles were common during my childhood.  Though I did not have them most of my friends in grade school did.  Yet today we consider 222 cases for the entire year of 2010 as an "outbreak."

Is this good or bad if the hundreds of millions of vaccines used to prevent the measles cause other, more serious problems?

Certain there can be side effects from measles.

But apparently there are side effects from vaccines as well.

But, most interesting, there are 750 cases of death by lightning strikes in the US each year. 

Far, far more than the 222 cases of measles - and more deadly too.

Yet there is no CDC-equivalent installing lightening arresting technology on golf courses or the roofs of houses to prevent such deaths...

I wonder why?

Could it be that the livelihood people make from "big government/pharma" outweighs the "problems" caused by the solution to what is not really a big problem in the first place?

As a child of the 50's and 60's I recall having a small number of vaccinations for important things: smallpox, polio, and so on.

Today most children must receive at least 36 vaccinations before reaching six.

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