Welcome to the XIXth Century

I never met my aunt Gertrude.

She was born on the 8th December, 1915, and died on the 8th of February 1940, two months after her twenty-fourth birthday—or, she was born the year after the start of World War One and died the year after the start of World War Two.

Most important of all, she died of tuberculosis, a disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, also known as Koch’s bacillus, after the German microbiologist who first discovered it in 1882.

At the time of her death, antibiotics were already known, but no one was convinced of their efficacy, and no method was developed to mass produce them until 1945.

In 1941, the British Medical Journal reported that “[Penicillin] does not appear to have been considered as possibly useful from any other point of view.

The research work of Robert Koch and Alexander Fleming would be worth at least a handful of my articles—the contribution of the two men to human well-being is a reminder of how grateful we should be to those who do the same for us now, instead of engaging in the mental masturbation of conspiracy theories.

An advert for a truly unique selling point—four hours and you’re back on the job…

Koch didn’t just discover TB—he also worked on anthrax, plague, cholera, malaria, and sleeping sickness.

Fleming discovered lysozyme well before he discovered penicillin, but the importance of this bacteria-killing enzyme was totally ignored by the British Royal Society and everyone else.

Fleming didn’t run a particularly clean lab, and lysozyme was found to be present in nasal mucus—okay, snot—as well as in tears, sperm, vaginal fluids, blood, and spit. We now understand that this enzyme is part of a group of naturally occurring antimicrobial proteins present in our immune system.

Enter 2021.

Humanity has been enthusiastically using antibiotics for three-quarters of a century. We use them on ourselves, on animals farmed on land and in water, we dump them into rivers—in short, we consume the little magic pills with reckless abandon.

In 2006, I was in western China’s Yunnan province, part of the old opium route to Southeast Asia—all you need is a map, and there it is: Myanmar to the west, Vietnam and Laos to the south, both nudging the Mekong river—cross the mighty Mekong and you’re in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand. Welcome to the land of the poppy.

We went up to Lijiang and I learned about the Nashi people—our tour guide pronounced it nazi people, which tickled my puerile humor. I was ill, running a fever, sore throat, no respite. I advised my Chinese companions of my plight (which was kind of obvious). One produced some blue antibiotics, another had some yellow ones, someone had red—it was like an oriental Woodstock. Well, I’ve done my share of pills and I didn’t have a lot of choice—but they didn’t do a damn thing.

The Nashi are quite a remarkable society, which took my mind off things.

The practice of sexual life is free between non-consanguineous adults: at night, the man goes to the woman with whom he would like to have sex, the woman being free to accept or not. Both men and women are free to have multiple partners. As a result, children do not always know their biological father. The children are raised by the inhabitants of the household, the maternal uncles assuming the role of “father” as we envision it in the West. This conception stems in part from one of their beliefs presenting the man as the rain on the grass: it serves to foster what is already there. The reproductive role of the man is thus to “water” the fetus already present in the woman. For Nashi, hereditary characters are contained in bones, and are transmitted by women.

The excerpt above needs some correcting—as I recall, it’s the women who choose the men, a true matriarchy.

After Lijiang, we went into the Chinese Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, high into the Himalayas—at Shangri-La (really) airport, oxygen cylinders were for sale. We were put on ponies for a ride as soon as we arrived. My illness worsened, and more pills appeared. Maybe these were green and white.

All the Chinese—especially the women—seemed to be in possession of assorted antibiotics. No one knew what the drugs were called, who made them, what they were for, or the expiry date. There were no boxes or foil packs. It became clear that whenever one of my companions felt under the weather in popped a pill—there was no notion of a course of antibiotics—if you felt bad you took the pills, when you felt better you stopped.

I began to follow an alternative Scottish therapy of single malt.

Wastewater from an effluent serving ninety antibiotic production plants near Hyderabad, India. The ‘water’ appears to be quite pungent—probably because in contains 31 milligrams per liter of ciprofloxacin, over thousand times the lethal dose for bacteria.

Worst-case, bacteria reproduce once every twenty minutes. They don’t really ‘reproduce’ in the sense of sexual reproduction, they split in two. So if we start with only one now, in 20 minutes there are two, and at the end of an hour there are eight. By the end of the next hour, sixty-four. The next, five hundred and twelve. The next 4096. Then 32k (in computer speak). Then 256k. So in six hours, one of the little fuckers makes a quarter million more.

Don’t even try to work what happens in six days, never mind sixty years. And that’s a whole lot of mutations. About as fast as this dude is playing.

Gonorrhea is known as the clap, which is also the name of this amazing tune played by Steve Howe, of the long-forgotten band Yes.

With these mutations came antibiotic resistance because the successful bacteria are the ones that survive—like a Sicilian vendetta, if we don’t exterminate the whole family because we take the full set of pills, one of these days the Lupara will knock on the door.

It may now be too late to reverse course—we already live in a world of superbacteria. A child who falls and scrapes its leg may die through infection considered trivial during my childhood—we already have minibeast resistance for pneumonia, tuberculosis, and yes, gonorrhea. Chemotherapy, widely used in oncology, lowers our immune defense, so antibiotic-resistant microbes become allies of the cancer itself.

And then, of course, there’s the food supply. Antibiotics are widely used in animal husbandry and contribute to healthy livestock.

Forty-two percent of beef calves in feedlots are fed tylosin—a veterinary macrolide drug—to prevent liver abscesses that negatively impact growth, and approximately 88% of growing swine in the U.S. receive antibiotics in their feed for disease prevention and growth promotion purposes, commonly tetracyclines or tylosin

Another good reason to eat fish. Made in Europe, or North America, where the European Commission, Food and Drug Administration, European Medicines Agency, and Norwegian agencies lay down the law with vigor. China, India, or Bangladesh, on the other hand…

November 18th marked the start of antibiotic awareness week—bacteria now kill seven hundred thousand people a year, but anything to do with microbes has a tendency to be geometric—by 2050, ten million a year will die from bacterial diseases.

The sort of crap coming out of the orifices of the orang-u-tan and his tropical twin on alternative COVID cures led to ‘experiments’ with azithromycin and other antibiotics during the pandemic. In Latin America, ninety percent of COVID-related hospital admissions were prescribed antibiotics—an estimated 7% actually needed them. Self-administration was rife. As a consequence, antibiotic resistance soared across the continent, from Argentina to Guatemala. In Chile, resistance is at levels expected only in the 2030s.

Between bacteria and viruses, with a substantial seasoning of society’s stupidity, the recipe is nicely in place. I can already hear the minibeasts gloating—a mass of amorphous living material relentlessly attacking the most sophisticated organisms the planet was able to evolve—and winning the war.

We don’t feel attacked, partly because we have no notion of the finite nature of our lives except when it’s too late.

Death always comes as a surprise.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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