Do you know what happened in 1928?
Keep in mind that back then, the infamous stock market collapse that triggered the nation’s greatest economic depression was still a year away and the rise of fascism in Europe (that would trigger the planet’s worst and most destructive warfare) was a decade in the future.
In the United States, 1928 should have been a year in which it became apparent that Prohibition, a nationwide ban on the production, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages, was a bust. Not only did the 20th Amendment fail to stop people from drinking, but as a lengthy history on TheMobMuseum.org phrased it, “Prohibition practically created organized crime in America. It provided members of small-time street gangs with the greatest opportunity ever — feeding the need of Americans coast to coast to drink beer, wine and hard liquor on the sly.”
But we should remember 1928 for another seminal event, one that occurred overseas but was arguably one of the most profound milestones of the 20th century.
In September of that year, a professor of bacteriology at London’s St. Mary’s Hospital returned from a summer vacation to find that one of his lab’s petri dishes containing a culture of staphylococcus exhibited a strange mold that seemed to inhibit the growth of the bacteria.
The professor was Alexander Fleming, the mold was a strain of Penicillium notatum and the eventual isolation of penicillin drugs ushered in the medical use of antibiotics, providing humanity with its first effective treatment for such deadly infectious diseases as pneumonia, rheumatic fever and gonorrhea.
Trading in Fear
The point of noting penicillin’s discovery is that it occurred 90 years ago. Widespread use of the drug began in the 1940s — spurred on by the need to treat battlefield injuries of World War II — as commercial production made penicillin and other first-generation antibiotics some of medicine’s most prominent pharmaceutical therapies.
Given that time span, it’s axiomatic that bacterial pathogens would eventually develop resistance to antibiotics. That’s what bacteria do. That’s how they’ve managed to survive, like, forever.
In recent years, however, the emergence of microbial pathogens resistant to multiple antibiotics has provided both sober scientists and rabid activists with a new moniker as powerful as Frankenfoods: Superbugs.
The alpha dog in capitalizing the labeling of bacteria as superbugs is the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that describes itself as “a team of scientists, policy experts, lawyers, communication experts standing up for public health when government and industry won’t.”
Not that any of that isn’t important and valuable, but EWG tends to trade in the same toxic mix of fear and outrage that drives most activist organizations. The group’s messaging constantly warns Americans that GMOs are a deadly scourge that threatens to poison the public; that the bottle of shampoo you’re using in the shower likely blinded scores of innocent bunnies; and that virtually every edible food product that isn’t free-range, family-farmed and organically grown is contaminated with a cocktail of harmful pesticides, herbicides and a host of other “chemicals” that can kill you!
Although they profess to be staffed by researchers and scientists, don’t hold your breath waiting for EWG to offer a reasoned, nuanced explanation of bacterial resistance. Like most activist orgs, they trade in extremes, selling an often science-challenged public on the urgency of the struggle against both the corporate and microbial enemies they claim are stalking humanity with deadly intentions.
In the end, the problem with constantly calling resistant bacteria “superbugs” is that it denotes something unholy, something alien to the normal processes that occur in Nature, a mutation like the ones Hollywood creates to titillate movie-going audiences. In reality, bacteria have had multiple decades to build resistance to antibiotics.
Heck, even relatively primitive viruses manage to mutate annually so as to survive whatever vaccines are developed to counteract their ill effects on people during flu season.
With the prevalence of antibiotics as a staple of medical care, it’s only surprising that the array of potentially pathogenic organisms haven’t developed total resistance to the drugs that for generations physicians have used in an attempt to wipe them out.
To paraphrase the popular insurance ads currently cluttering every commercial break on television, as long as bacteria continue to exist, you can bet they’ll find a way to resist humanity’s efforts to destroy them.
And they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.