Evolution, antibiotics, and public health

There are many fears about antibiotics.  People are petrified about antibiotics being in the meats that they eat, but on the other hand, they outright demand antibiotics for a minor viral sinus infection.

First of all, I must say.  Antibiotics are good.  Overusing or improperly using antibiotics is bad.  Let me clarify a few myths.

There are expiration dates for a reason.  Some antibiotics change chemically.  Yes, people commonly think they get weaker, so when they get the sniffles, they reach for an expired antibiotic in their medicine cabinet because it, “still has a little bit.”  Wrong!  Some antibiotics change chemically and can actually harm patients if they are taken when they are too old.  Those antibiotics with a little bit left might be weak at killing the bacteria, and in comes evolution – the bacteria become resistant.

Antibiotics treat certain infections, not all of them.  Some are broad spectrum, some treat only gram positive or gram negative, some treat only specific species of bacterial infections, and none treat viral infections.  Taking amoxicillin for a simple viral sinus infection will not make you well sooner, but it will add to the weighted sum of people improperly using antibiotics – accelerating evolution along the way.

Antibiotics are good for farm animals…when they are sick with a bacterial infection!  Sure, it is probably better to eat a healthy cow than a sick cow, but are we all exiled for life for coming down with pneumonia once?  No, but regularly dumping antibiotics into feed, however, is evolutionarily dangerous.

Tuberculosis is becoming more and more resistant to the level that a vaccine is in order.  People are now dying from gonorrhea in developed countries.  Superbugs are developing in infants in India.  We need an evolutionary perspective in public health more now than ever.

None of the above should be construed as medical advice.  Rather, we should remember that evolution is incredibly important in health and sanitation.


About Darwinius Cantabrigiensis

Darwinius is a cardiovascular epidemiologist who has trained in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan. He is an alumnus of the evolutionary studies program.
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