Underappreciated Antibiotic Risks

Though development of organisms resistant to antibiotics is a widely recognized problem, its seriousness seems insufficiently recognized by the general public. In her review of Martin Blaser’s Missing Microbes, Dr. Abigail Zuger describes this threat as follows:

“Imprudent antibiotic use has resulted in widespread resistance among microbes; infectious disease doctors… now operate in a state of permanent near panic as common infections demand increasingly powerful drugs for control.”

As bad as growing resistance may be, there are other less well known problems with antibiotics, such as serious intestinal difficulty resulting from destruction of one’s normal microbiome. It appears that using antibiotics to get rid of Heliobacter pylori, a microbe associated with ulcers and stomach cancer, can lead to disease of the esophagus, against which H. pylori seems to offer protection.

Antiobiotics have been fed on a large scale to livestock to make them grow faster and bigger. (This practice has recently been banned in the U.S., but since feeding the same livestock antibiotics to prevent disease is still allowed, it remains to be seen whether the regulatory change will make much practical difference.) Noting that prescribing antibiotics to children may have the same growth augmenting effect, Zuger reports that

“The results of an interconnected series of experiments in Dr. Blaser’s lab, with infant mice fed a variety of antibiotic regimens, lend strong support to the theory that exposure to antibiotics early in life has long-term effects on metabolism, and may contribute to our epidemic of childhood and adult obesity.”