Are antibiotics killing off beneficial bacteria for good?

An editorial that argues that the use of bacteria is killing off beneficial bacteria for ever has been published in Nature by Martin Blaser of New York University’s Langone Medical Centre. Blaser’s article cites his own laboratory evidence that sometimes the beneficial flora never fully recover, and this may increase people’s susceptibility to diseases and infections. He also says that overuse of antibiotics could be behind the recent surge in obesity, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies and asthma.

His own research has found that children who don’t acquire the bacteria H. pylori are at greater risk of developing allergy and asthma, plus eradicating H. pylori affects the production of two hormones that influence weight gain. The incidence of infection with H. pylori has declined just as the rates of esophageal cancer have risen.

H. pylori are susceptible to the same antibiotics that children are prescribed for ear infections and colds – and not only do children receive an average of one prescription a year for antibiotics up to adulthood, but also pregnant women are routinely prescribed antibiotics (one-third to one-half of women in the industrialised world). Add to this the fact that more and more children are born by Caesarian section and thereby miss their first introduction to the friendly bacteria they would encounter coming through the birth canal. The legacy is that each generation is born with a smaller and smaller legacy of ancient beneficial microbes than the last.

The change in gut bacteria composition may be responsible for diseases as diverse as obesity and depression, added to the continuing debate over the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ and Blaser warns that this overuse of antibiotics must be reined in, and fully investigated. But it must be stopped even before we fully understand the impact, especially with regards the emergence of resistant superbugs.

Source: Nature

Full article: Wired

First published August 2011

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