Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A "rusting" silver bullet

The development of penicillin was rightly seen as a great breakthrough in medicine. Fatal infections could now be treated with a “silver bullet However in nature nothing is static. Bacteria have been around for longer than humans and have survived by being able to adapt.

In the 1970’s a term, antibiotic induced diarrhoea was coined -describing a form of diarrhoea that followed a course of antibiotics. This was caused by a bug, resistant to antibiotics called Clostridium difficile as it was difficult to treat.

The problem has gotten worse. A report in the New York Times (see link) estimates that there are over 350,000 cases and up to 20,000 deaths from this infection each year in the USA. The rate of infection doubled between 2001 and 2005. Almost all of these will be after a course of antibiotics for another reason or were contracted in hospital. In fact the chance of getting this outside a health care setting is low.

Herein lies the issue with our silver bullet and bacteria which are smaller than us but not as stupid as we thought. We overuse antibiotics particularly in illnesses like colds flus, sinus and upper respiratory infections. Many of these are caused by viruses which don’t respond to an antibiotic anyway and others would be adequately dealt with by our immune systems –if we gave them the right support and a bit of time.

Many people believe an antibiotic will reduce time spent off work. This is rarely the case. Some feel better after the first tablet which is nice but has nothing to do with the antibiotic. Some feel that last time they got sick an antibiotic worked so they must need it again. The chances are that they got better anyway rather than due to the tablets.

The medical fraternity and public need to take responsibility here. Doctors have been too willing to prescribe. However there is a contribution from people “demanding” antibiotics when the doctor feels it isn’t needed. Please note – your children don’t need an antibiotic any more than you if they have a cold.

So what can you do to strengthen your immune system. Eat a balanced diet with adequate fruit, vegetables and essential fatty acids such as fish, olives (or olive oil), linseed or nuts. Many benefit from vitamin supplements, particularly antioxidants such as vitamins A C and E which help the immune system. Zinc, Vitamin D and Folate supplements may also have a role. Drink 35ml/kg of (preferably) filtered water each day.

Make sure you get enough sleep as this is the bodies, recharge the battery time. When ill, people will rest and reduce their load – just what the body needs.

Most importantly examine your workload and stress levels and take steps to reduce them before they reduce your immunity to illness.

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