Global Warming Isn’t The Big Problem… But Don’t Relax Just Yet

It seems that global warning may not after all be the biggest threat to human life.

But don’t reach for the champagne yet – there is a larger one, which is the adverse effect of the over use of antibiotics. This threat does not arise from antibiotic resistant “superbugs” like MRSA, (although they are frightening enough), but from the latent effects of altering the microbiology of our bodies. This is probably causing the massive increase in diabetes, food allergies, bowel problems and possibly autism. The problem is described in a book, “Missing Microbes” by Martin Blaser, published last year.

Martin Blaser is not a crank or radical doctor – he is very much part of the medical establishment. He is currently director of the Human Microbiome Programme at New York University, where he has also been chair of medicine. He has also been the President of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and has worked at the US Centre for Disease Control. His research is funded by some of the most prestigious funds and organisations, including the UK government. As well as being a top-notch academic, Blaser has the happy ability to explain a very complicated subject with clear simplicity while retaining the nuances and subtleties of the microbial world. This is a book for the layman.

While the religious may view a human as a single entity, created by God in his (or her) image and Richard Dawkins may see the human body as a construct of the self-replicating chemical DNA honed by evolution Blaser offers a third view. Our one body comprises some 30,000,000,000,000 (that’s 30 trillion) cells. Yet it is host to three times that number of microbes, i.e. 100 trillion. The mass of microbes in your body is about 3 pounds (the same as your brain) and there are some 10,000 different species of them inside you; effectively you are a zoo! Many of these microbes are bacteria and most of them live in some state of symbiosis with you, at least for most of the time. You provide shelter, they provide an enzyme or a biochemical pathway.

Blaser explains all this clearly, lucidly and lightly. He then goes on to consider what happens when antibiotics are taken, (some bacteria die). Then the book starts to get scary, as the evidence and research just piles up relentlessly and remorselessly. While the development of penicillin and other antibiotics has save a lot of lives and made many surgical procedures safe this has not been achieved without significant adverse impact. For example. Blaser shows that the prescription of antibiotics to very young children inhibits the development of their own microbial content; he makes the further point that such prescription is in effect endemic in caesarean births. He shows that inhibited or delayed development of a child’s microbes impacts nutrition (diabetes) the immune system (asthma, hay fever and possibly autism). This is not a theory, he has the data to support it.

In spite of the devastating picture of modern human health that Blaser paints, it is not completely cataclysmic as he offers some solutions. These start with the ban of “growth promoters” (already banned in the EU, these are antibiotics added to animal feed in US and elsewhere to increase growth) and go on to consider methods of recolonizing bacteria within the human. (And no, probiotics aren’t enough and might not be effective). So there is hope.

Thalidomide was a disaster that caused over 100,000 deformed babies. Yet Thalidomide was prescribed by a doctors who genuinely believed that it was helping the lot of humans – and in some cases it was. But overuse led to disaster. It seems that the same is true of antibiotics.

Read this book.