Antibiotics – Not Always Invited

17 11 2011

George Armelagos is an anthropologist (kind of like Apolo Ohno is a skater).

A few years ago, one of George’s students detected an antibiotic called tetracycline in the bone of an ancient Nubian. Both the student and George thought this was odd, since tetracycline had not come into common use until the 1950s.

George and his student, along with some of their colleagues, got busy and discovered that lots of Nubians, Egyptians, and others from the early years of the second period of the Gregorian calendar had detectable tetracycline in their bones.

Turns out, the antibiotic was consumed in the beer of the day.

George wrote up this find in Natural History Magazine. As for the beer . . .

The beer produced in ancient times, according to Barry Kemp, author of Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, was quite different from the modern commercial product: “It was probably an opaque liquid looking like a gruel or soup, not necessarily very alcoholic but highly nutritious. Its prominence in the Egyptian diet reflects its food value as much as the mildly pleasurable sensation that went with drinking it.”

Spores that produce tetracycline were inadvertently captured during the beer-brewing process and before they knew it, the ancients were slinging back antibiotics with their brewskies.

The old-timers might not have known how their beer came to be medicinal, but know it they did. George went on to write:

Given that the ancient Nubians and Egyptians were getting doses of tetracycline, another question is whether this afforded them any medical benefits. In Food: The Girl of Osiris, William J. Darby and coauthors provide archaeological, historical, and ethnographic accounts of beer’s use as a mouthwash to treat the gums, as an enema, as a vaginal douche, as a dressing for wounds, and as a fumigant to treat diseases of the anus (the dried remains of grains used in brewing are burned to produce a therapeutic smoke). This shows that even in the distant past, Egyptians and their neighbors appreciated beer’s medicinal qualities.

This sounds like a classic case of antibiotic overuse to me, and who knows? Maybe it was.

Overuse or misuse is certainly a concern these days. CDC is in the middle of Get Smart About Antibiotics Week, which is an international collaboration with the European Antibiotic Awareness Day and Canada′s Antibiotic Awareness Week.

Antibiotics are effective “against bacterial infections, certain fungal infections and some kinds of parasites.” They don’t do squat against viruses.

Misuse of antibiotics is a pervasive problem. For instance, if I take an antibiotic against a bacterial infection but I don’t take it long enough, the bacteria that survive become resistant to the antibiotic and can infect other people. The bacteria also reproduce and their offspring or clones are resistant.

When someone is infected with the resistant bacteria and he or she takes the same antibiotic I took (but didn’t finish), it may not work.

If this happens often enough, and it has, then we end up with a plethora of germs against which we have little or no defense.

It’s not a theory. It’s reality. It’s happening right now.

What can be done?

Healthcare professionals can stop giving antibiotics against viral infections and in other circumstances where the drug is not helpful.

We can stop asking for antibiotics. The healthcare professionals will know when we need them and when we don’t. Also, we must comply with the dosing instructions. We need to take the drug as directed and for as long as directed.

That’s about it. Pretty simple. But here’s hoping it’s not too late for scientists to come up with a new class of antibiotics that will allow us to have a do-over.

By Trish Parnell

Image courtesy of National Health Service


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