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Humans exist in symbiosis with bacteria living all around and inside us. Children migrate towards bacteria. They are inherently fond of the same things bacteria treasure—things like bread, cheese, soil, and sticky fingers. Occasionally eating bacteria boosts a child’s acquired immunity. Antibiotics have been rightfully deemed “miracle drugs” because of the countless lives they have saved from potentially lethal infections such as meningitis. Yet, the word “antibiotic” means “against life.” These powerful drugs kill bacteria in the body. Our society has initiated a foolhardy war on bacteria, forgetting that bacteria support life more regularly than they do harm.
Hundreds of beneficial types of bacteria live in our bodies, helping to protect against the harmful ones. While antibiotics are effective in killing bad bacteria, they also kill the good bacteria—an important part of the immune system— that line the digestive, respiratory, and urinary tracts. Without protection from friendly bacteria, disease-causing agents take hold more readily.
Antibiotic use often causes an overgrowth of yeast, as seen in babies that present with thrush after treatment. Yeast overgrowth further weakens the immune system. The prophylactic prescription of antibiotics is a major contributing factor to chronic health conditions. David Bell, Antimicrobial Resistance Coordinator for the Centers for Disease Control, clarifies one reason for this: “The overuse of antibiotics is the driving force for bacteria to become resistant.” Antibiotic resistance occurs when an antibiotic is effective in killing some of the bacteria, but the surviving bacteria multiply and mutate to become resistant to the antibiotic should they meet it again.
Antibiotic use can also lead non-disease–causing bacteria to mutate into more pernicious, disease-causing strains. Often, a vicious cycle is created: taking antibiotics and breeding new and more resistant strains of bacteria while the immune system becomes increasingly degraded. Drug-resistant bacterial infections affect nearly two million Americans. “If you’ve had antibiotics recently, you are three to nine times more likely to have a resistant infection than someone who has not had an antibiotic,” Bell explains. Yet, US doctors prescribe around twice as many antibiotics as English doctors and four times as many as doctors in Germany, often for ailments such as the common cold or a sore throat.
Antibiotics are ineffective in killing viruses. Still, in 1992, American doctors wrote twelve million antibiotic prescriptions for respiratory infections, a category of illnesses usually caused by viruses. A staggering ninety percent of all antibiotics prescribed in the United States are either prescribed inappropriately or used inappropriately by the patients. This overuse is largely due to the American desire for quick results that ensure our daily routine is interrupted as little as possible. Antibiotics are strong and operate fast. This “quick fix” mentality is especially harmful to our children. Some day care centers have seen the number of children infected with penicillin-resistant strep as high as twenty-nine percent. Over prescription occurs most often between 1 and 6 years of age, when ear infections are common.