One of the big issues we’re going to have to deal with in the near future is the increase of drug-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. A post by the wordpress blog “International Health Student” from back in April talked about this danger, when some bacteria survive an initial dose of antibacterial medicine (like penicillin) and slowly evolve to become totally immune. Obviously, the solution to this problem would be to stop prescribing and using so many antibacterial medicines and start looking for alternative solutions. Unfortunately, most Americans are ignorant of their overuse, and pharmaceutical companies don’t really want to conduct research into new drugs because “the margin for profit is much smaller in comparison to drugs battling rare and specific cancer treatments.”
This problem is especially concerning for Minnesotans, because many antibacterial soaps and cleaning products end up in bodies of water (which we happen to have a lot of) and spread quickly through our water supplies, thereby increasing superbug populations throughout the state.
Upon closer investigation, this issue is evocative of the same problems that medieval Europeans had dealing with the bubonic plague. Really, it comes down to two things; not having knowledge of the better options, and acting in our own self-interests. When Giovanni Boccaccio described “The Onset of the Black Death” he mentioned a few of the methods that the Italians used to fight the disease, and one of the primary solutions was prayer. In their defence, they didn’t have the internet, and it would be another 500 years before germ theory was developed, but nevertheless it was their ignorance about the cause of the disease that kept them from combatting it effectively.
Furthermore, Boccaccio described the actions of the frightened populace, and how many people attempted to avoid the disease by cutting themselves off from the sick members of society, “and lived a separate and secluded life … holding converse with none but one another, lest tidings of sickness or death should reach them.” So great was the fear of the disease that “fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children.”
Luckily for us Minnesotans, our government has a much greater awareness of the cause of drug-resistant bacteria than the medieval Italians did about the Black Death. That’s why our governor recently signed a bill banning the chemical Triclosan from soap and other sanitizing products, “in order to prevent the spread of infectious disease and avoidable infections and to promote best practices in sanitation.” Triclosan was the main antibacterial ingredient in those products. It has the side effect of decreasing thyroid hormone levels with long-term use, and according to most scientists, it is no more effective at preventing disease than simply washing with ordinary soap and water. Hopefully this is a sign of modern-day civilization’s willingness to find the best solution to its problems.