The forces of nature appear intent on reversing mankind’s progress toward better health. An example is the ever-increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. A timeline of the existence of humans and bacteria shows that bacteria have been around for a very long time— much longer than mammals, and much, much longer than humans. In fact by the dawn mankind, bacteria had been thriving, relatively uninhibited, for over 2 billion years.
Modern humans have been around for 40,000-200,000 years or so, depending on the definition of ’modern.’ Bacteria have had the upper hand during all of mans’ existence, save for the past 100 years after penicillin and other antibiotics were discovered. Only the most self-centered of species would look at a timeline and conclude that humans have won the battle with bacterial diseases. There are always reasons for optimism, but a fair assessment of our current struggle with antibiotic resistance suggests that someday, people will look back on the current sliver of time, when humans can treat most bacterial infections, as a golden era of medicine that wasn’t appreciated as such at the time.
Viruses adapt to mankind’s health efforts too, with new variants arising from the sludge at the bottom of the food chain to infect birds, swine, or other creatures before moving on to human hosts. The CDC and other scientists work to predict the vulnerabilities of the next super-virus, hoping to reduce the severity of the next pandemic. As with bacteria, we are enjoying an era without smallpox, polio, or other dreaded viral diseases that used to kill otherwise-healthy people. We take the victor’s position for granted to the point that our children don’t know why chlorine was first added to swimming pools. Gone with the last generation are the fears associated with iron lungs, orange window-signs, and leg braces.
Even the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, an agent of certain death in the 1980’s was transformed into a chronic, treatable illness. I was new to medicine when ‘universal precautions’ were first instituted (can our children even imagine having their teeth examined by someone not wearing latex gloves?!) Researchers don’t celebrate, though, since medication-resistant strains of HIV were expected …