I have a decidedly love-hate relationship with antibiotics. On the one hand, I have to admit that I owe my life to them. In 1942, when my mother was 24, her dentist unwisely extracted a tooth while she had the flu. Within days, her neck ballooned with a streptococcus infection, and she was rushed to the hospital. My father, then her fiancé, wept helplessly at her bedside while priests filed past him after administering the last rites.
But then the wonder drug arrived. As a last resort, my mother was given penicillin, still in experimental use then. Within a day or two, the swelling that had almost obscured her face simply melted away.
My ordinarily doubting father rushed off to church and humbly knelt before the altar, convinced that he had witnessed a miracle.
Those were the days when antibiotics were being tested to combat the deadliest of bacterial infections, such as had befallen my mother. As a result of the work of Alexander Fleming and others, penicillin began to be used gingerly during the World War II against such life-threatening illnesses as septicemia, meningitis and pneumonia.
No other family of drugs has so revolutionized—indeed defined—modern medicine. Indeed, if my mother hadn’t been given that drug, she would have died, and I would never have been born.
The canker on the rose
Fast forward 40 years, and the canker was already on the rose. The drug that had been reserved for life-threatening illnesses such as lobar pneumonia began to be routinely handed out by doctors for athlete’s foot or colds—anytime a benign infection was suspected or even suspected of one day developing.
Probably no other family of drugs has been so abused. Even in the early 1980s, audits of antibiotic use concluded that in half of all cases where antibiotics were prescribed, the medical condition didn’t warrant them.
One British study of antibiotic prescriptions found that in three-quarters of cases, patients with respiratory tract infections like flu left the doctor’s office with an antibiotic prescription, even though in most instances, colds and flu are caused by viruses, which usually aren’t killed by the drug.
According to criteria for antibiotics use set at the time by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a prescription was uncalled for in eight out of 10 instances.
In my own case, repeated prescriptions of antibiotics for more trivial infections in my twenties led to the serious gut issues I suffered in my early thirties, which in turn led to the creation of our magazine What Doctors Don’t Tell You.
And I was one of the lucky ones. As the late Dr. John Mansfield once noted, “Just three or four courses can often push a patient over the precipice into chronic illness.”
This time, I owed a few years of debilitating illness to antibiotics.
Ever stronger drugs
The overuse of antibiotics has had deadly ramifications. It has caused bacteria to mutate and become antibiotic-resistant. Back when penicillin was first developed, a single moderate course was enough to cure diseases like gonorrhea or staphylococcus infections.
By the 1990s, it required two giant doses, often in combination with another antibiotic, to do the job.
Now, in most instances, penicillin doesn’t work so well. One study of children under seven found that all those who’d recently been given antibiotics had been found to carry pneumococcal-resistant bacteria.
Small wonder that as the bugs fight back, ever stronger preparations need to be developed in order to combat them, preparations with a long litany of their own life-threatening side effects. In fact, in the newest iterations of the drugs, the ‘cure’ can be more deadly than the disease, causing liver damage, life-threatening burns all over the body, brain inflammation—even sudden heart attacks.
Like Catherine Slater, who was given flucloxacillin for a cyst in her shoulder and ended up with jaundice and liver damage, which took her several months to recover from. Hundreds of thousands of people permanently harmed by certain classes of antibiotics aren’t so lucky.
But the real nub of the issue is that with so many areas of medicine, a number of natural substances work just as well as antibiotics for serious infections, but without the possibility of crippling side-effects.
Even humble oregano oil has been shown to be more powerful against bacteria than a range of antibiotics, as has simple manuka honey, which has been proven to work where drugs can’t—against both deadly lung infections and even that plague of modern hospitals, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
I’m eternally grateful to modern medicine for saving my mother’s life and making my life possible. But since that time, it’s become evident that desperate times and diseases don’t always call for desperate medical measures. In so many instances, long-standing alternative treatments reach those parts of the body that modern medicine can never hope to.