RE: those awful superbugs

From: Harvey Newstrom (
Date: Sat Aug 11 2001 - 09:00:32 MDT

Damien Broderick wrote,
> `Superbugs', so-called, are not some new and unheralded kind of omnipotent
> monster bacterium. (And of course they can't be any kind of virus, because
> antibiotics shouldn't affect those critters--unless altering the
> background
> ecological mix does somehow skew the norm of reaction for viri.)

Not quite. There were originally many variants of each particular bacteria
and its resulting disease. All these variants are competing in the
environment and in the people they infect. This means that 99% of the
bacteria in a diseased person could be wiped out with antibiotics. 99% of
the cases of that disease in a human is minor and curable. 99% of time
there is no problem. Superbugs were rarely ever seen.

> What they are is, by definition, *bacteria resistant to a particular
> antibiotic*, or perhaps a family of similar antibiotics.
> That means that their evolution, at worst, has reverted the
> balance of play
> to the way it was originally.

Not quite. Just as jackrabbits are taking over Australia due to a lack or
predators, and fire-ants are taking over Florida due to the killing of other
ants, antibiotics wipe out the wimpy bacteria and leave only the super
bacteria. Without competition, the super bacteria fill the entire niche
where the wimpy bacteria used to be. Remember that it is the same kind of
bacteria, so it fits right into the gap left by its wimpy versions.

Now, 99% of the bacteria in a disease person remains unaffected by
treatment. Now, 99% of the cases of this particular disease are incurable.
99% of the time there is nothing we can do to stop the disease. Even before
antibiotics, people could survive many illnesses, because the immune system
could overcome it. The superbugs are the strong unstoppable kind, so the
immune system cannot overcome it. After antibiotics, the superbug becomes
the prevalent form of that particular infections. In such a case, we have
mutated a rarely-fatal disease into an often-fatal disease that spreads the
same way and fills the same environmental niche as the original.

> *Except* that, in the meantime, monocultural agribiz has reduced the
> genetic diversity of crops, making widespread variants especially
> vulnerable to the rebound diseases. That's not the fault of antibiotics
> *per se*, though. It might be a very good reason to worry about
> excessively
> centralized and massively advertised corporate food production.

This is a real concern with crops that are geared to a particular pesticide.
After literally a couple of years of use, only pests that are resistant to
the pesticide will remain in the area. Even the crop manufacturers predict
that their crops are only going to be viable for a decade or less, and that
they are trying to develop new ones before the old ones become obsolete.
They also instruct farmers not to cover their entire field with the
pesticide to avoid developing super-pests. Unfortunately, they are already
seeing most farmers ignore this warning. Like the prisoner's dilemma, each
farmer things they can get more and leave the precautions to other farmers,
but everybody loses if everybody gets greedy.

> My feeling is that one needs to be very careful in describing the real
> problem(s), and allocating blame. As far as I can see, *nobody* has been
> harmed by applying antibiotics to ill humans. I and many others are now
> alive because of them. If we now face, at worst, reversion to a condition
> where resistant bacterial diseases roam the world unchecked, that's very
> sad--not because of the brief, blessed epoch of cheap, effective
> antibiotics, but because it's at an end.

The problems with developing super bacteria have been known for decades.
Most medical personnel didn't listen, because each individual case appears
more important than the big picture. The outbreak of unstoppable bugs in
hospitals and stronger epidemics is killing people. People are dying due to
widespread overuse of antibiotics. I don't think more have been killed than
saved yet, but it is a vicious cycle that we need to break before things get
worse than the original state. It may be claimed that there is blame and
that people are being killed by this phenomenon. We should not be too
flippant in dismissing these claims. They do have some historical truth.

> In fact, I doubt that it *is* at an end, because soon our medical
> knowledge
> will be so far advanced by genomics, proteomics etc that we'll outdo even
> the vast genetic algorithm factories of the natural world (i.e., our own
> bodies and those of our livestock, where the bugs breed and mutate).

Hopefully. However it is always a risky position to argue for ignoring a
known problem based on the hope that a solution will appear in the future.

> If that's true, resistance will be, for the superbugs, futile. And even if
> it's not true, the supposed `superbugs' provide no evidence at all that we
> have entered a new era of unprecedented malignancy--Gaia `fighting back',
> as some dopes like to think of it. It's just, at worst, a return to
> ecological business as usual.

There is no reason to lump the super-bugs in with mystical Gaia theories.
Any bacteriologist will tell you that this phenomenon is real and is a
direct threat to public health. It is naive to dismiss this as an unfounded
belief or to ignore it on the hopes that someone else will clean up our

Harvey Newstrom <> <>

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