I am girding my loins for the antibiotic apocalypse and I suggest you do the same. Actually, what you do with your loins is none of my business.
I get sick once a year when the seasons turn. This year my body decided flu was so, like, 2015, and decided to give me an infection instead. Nothing deadly, unfortunately, which means I have to stick around and watch our president and his confederacy of dunces continue to ransack the state.
I don’t have a doctor for the same reason I don’t have a religion. I don’t get sick and I don’t believe there’s a god. Not that that’s the same reason.
I tend to judge people on their looks rather than their abilities, and doctors are no exception. This means I have dallied with a number of beautiful women before taking the trouble to find out anything about them. Many have turned out to be not quite right in the head. This suggests my modus operandi is fatally flawed but there is nothing I can do about it now.
I turned to Google to find a doctor’s face I could trust. I didn’t care what qualifications he held – firstly, because they’re just a jumble of upper and lower case letters, and secondly, because I’m not convinced a huge skills gap exists between doctors. They’re like pilots. You have to know what you’re doing or people will die and then you’re unlikely to still be practising, let alone flying.
Very few doctors, it turns out, put their photographs up. Perhaps they don’t want people recognising them in the street and making them look at unsightly rashes on their genitalia.
Eventually I found one that looked okay. Middle-aged. Glasses. Slightly disheveled. You don’t want a doctor who looks like he stepped out of GQ magazine. He should be worrying about how other people look.
His surname sounded foreign but his first and middle names were about as Waspish as you can get. Perhaps he was Jewish. God’s chosen people sometimes have weird surnames. Or maybe his grandfather was from one of those unpronounceable Balkan states. I made an appointment.
The waiting room was like any other. Scuffed pleather couches, toys for unimaginative children, magazines from the Boer War – all coated in a thin veneer of other people’s filthy germs.
I took my infection off to a corner chair and tried not to touch anything. I loathe sick people. I can’t even bring myself to look at them. Just because I was sitting among them didn’t make me one of them. I was different. Special. My bacteria were far superior to theirs.
I heard my name called. An Indian gentleman standing at reception was smiling at me. Had we met at a party long since erased from memory? I twitched my mouth and nodded, then quickly looked away. Doctor’s waiting rooms are no place for socialising. It’s embarrassing enough to be recognised. He called my name a second time. I pretended not to hear. A woman with the face of a diseased kidney barked, “Hey, the doctor’s calling you.”
The doctor? How did my doctor become an Indian? He was blocking my path to the door. I would have to shoulder charge him if I hoped to make it out. Just then another door opened and the doctor in the photograph walked into the room. For a fraction of a second I had the urge to shout that a terrible mistake had been made and that I really wanted this guy to see me. Could I get away with this without everyone assuming I was the illegitimate love child of Eugene Terreblanche and Sunette Bridges? Probably not.
Look, I didn’t care that the doctor was Indian. Some of my best friends are Indian doctors. I was just utterly confused. Thinking of it, of course his surname was Indian. Four of the six letters were vowels. It was his Christian names that threw me. And, obviously, the photo of him as a white man.
As if to show him and the entire waiting room that I wasn’t Steve Hofmeyr in disguise, I shook his hand. This is clearly the wrong thing to do. Doctors touch the filthiest things, and I’m not just talking about foreign currency. I would’ve asked to wash my hands if I wasn’t afraid of looking like a cross between Adolf Hitler and Howard Hughes.
I went into his office and described my symptoms. He gave me the medical nod and asked what I did for a living. I could hardly say, “I write a weekly column” because of the very real risk of him replying, “No, I meant for a living.” Anyway, my infection had nothing to do with my so-called job, which really only puts me at risk of contracting deep vein thrombosis from sitting on my arse all day.
Without taking my blood pressure, checking my heart rate, feeling my pulse, asking if I had any allergies or a history of mental illness or was on any medication or even giving my infection a name, he wrote out a prescription for two antibiotics and wished me luck. I didn’t try to shake his hand this time. He didn’t get up.
Later, I chucked a couple of pills into my mouth and reached for the half-empty beer on the passenger seat. That’s when I saw it. A red sticker on one of the containers screamed, AVOID ALCOHOL. This made me feel substantially worse. I hoped this was a general health warning and not something I was expected to do for the duration of the course.
I have on occasion put things into my mouth without first asking what they were. In almost every case, though, alcohol tended to enhance their, er, healing properties. This time I thought I’d do some research. Find out exactly what was in this filth that conspired to prevent me from drinking. First off, I discovered that it contained 0.8% alcohol and “could be harmful to alcoholics”. This confused me deeply.
One container yielded a package insert 92cm long. Almost a metre. I measured it. You’d need the eyesight of a yellow-billed kite to read it so I checked it out online. Sure enough. Even a small amount of alcohol will make you violently ill. The antibiotic is on the World Health Organisation’s List of Essential Medicines. I don’t care. Beer should also be on that list.
It’s used to treat a variety of infections, including something “popularly known as beaver fever”. I am almost certain that I don’t have beaver fever.
Hang on. The drug is listed by the WHO as a possible carcinogen? Tested on lab animals, it gave them cancer. Whoa. Back up the bus, Gus. I’ll take the beaver fever, thanks. The antibiotic I’ve just necked is banned in America and Europe for use in animal food. Because it’s carcinogenic, you can’t give it to cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, goats and quite possibly beavers, but it’s okay to give it to me? I don’t know about that, man. It just doesn’t feel right.
The other antibiotic – a pill the size of the Hindenburg – is also used to treat people who have been exposed to anthrax. That’s pretty serious stuff. One of the more beneficial side effects is hallucinations but, disappointingly, I haven’t seen anything freakier than my neighbour’s children.
Which brings me back to the antibiotic apocalypse. Right now, superbugs are killing 700 000 people a year. Want to hear the forecast? By 2050, resistance to these drugs could cause the deaths of ten million people a year. More than cancer will kill. This isn’t a figure I got from some homeless man shouting on a street corner. It’s in a report commissioned by the British government. The Brits are not known for public displays of hysteria. If anything, the report underplays the crisis.
Scientists are working hard at discovering new classes of antibiotics. In the past thirty years, they have found one. One. I’m not making this up. Bacteria are laughing at us. They don’t take us seriously. They’re worse than our government. You think Julius Malema is dangerous? Try antimicrobial resistance.
Sensible people who know things are warning of the world being cast back into the dark ages. Routine operations and even a cut on your finger could be a death sentence.
We’re at this point because doctors have spent decades dishing out antibiotics like they were Smarties. And also because farmers pumped their animals full of the stuff to make them grow faster. As a result, germs have adapted and mutated. It’s evolution, baby.
In Britain, 45% of all antibiotics is given to livestock. You really don’t want to be eating pigs. This could prove to be the only tenet of the Judaic and Islamic religions that might actually save lives.
None of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies have made a financial commitment to invest in new antibiotics. Why? They are expensive to produce and offer a poor return because they are taken for a short period only. Drug companies don’t want miracle cures that cost them a fortune to research and develop. They want sick people to stay sick, but not so sick that they die and can’t buy drugs any more.
So now there is talk of rewarding, well, bribing, drug companies with millions of dollars to develop new antibiotics. Because, you know, they’re really struggling to survive. Pfizer makes a paltry $22-billion in profits a year. I don’t even know what that is in our currency. My head would explode if I tried to work it out. In the space of three months in 2014, drug company Gilead made $3.5-billion from its hepatitis C drug alone.
To be fair, their overheads are high. For instance, in 2012 Glaxo SmithKline was fined $2.2-billion for excessively promoting a drug for depression to kids under 18. Merck, on the other hand, paid a piffling $950-million fine for illegally promoting a painkiller. It goes on.
And it’s no secret that pharmaceutical companies bribe doctors to prescribe their drugs over others. I don’t know if my doctor is among them. All I know is that his haste to give me antibiotics bordered on the unseemly. Antibiotics, I should emphasise, that cause cancer in laboratory animals. I still took them, though. Doctors know what they’re doing, right? RIGHT?