The ghost in the wellbeing machine

We thought we had it sorted – this wellbeing thing. You didn’t need a medical degree to understand what’s good for you, and what’s good for all of us is pretty easily explained:

Things to go for: plenty of regular exercise, a healthy diet involving lots of fruit and even more vegetables, regular sleep, fresh air, laughter, a dependable and active social network (real people, not just online “friends” you “like”), and without going overboard: sunshine and drinking water.

Things to avoid: sugar, tobacco and drugs, alcohol (mostly), sugar, sedentary living, processed food, too much of any of those good things above, sugar, debilitating stress, bullying jerks, boring people and, of course, sugar.

So what can be the problem? We can admit that the “wellbeing shopping list” is a bit harder to manage in the doing than it is to understand the point of doing it, but it seems that we should all be okay if enough of us actually do it?

Well no, actually. More is needed. And that appears to be down to a ghost in the machine, lurking beneath all this responsibility we are all supposed to be taking as empowered consumers, managing our own health. And the problem is the precipitate increase in bacterial resistance to antibiotics which, after eighty years of our living in the Age of New Medicine (i.e. post-penicillin and its progeny), looks like pitching us with our doctors back into an age where we cannot cope with even the most basic infections. We would be back in the day when you could scrape your knee in the street, and be dead in a week.

This is how this works. (And if you would like a more detailed explanation – still extremely readable but much longer than the 500 words I give myself, go here.)

Since battlefield applications of the first non-experimental doses of penicillin in 1943, the usual war of biological escalation has seen new bacteria that the early anti-biotics could not kill, so stronger anti-biotics came in that could kill them, leading to the mutation of even more robust bacteria. The danger would lie in the misapplication of the new miracle cure, in some way getting the drugs into people’s systems in such quantities as did not kill harmful bacteria but encouraged the rapid development of more drug-resistant strains of bacteria. And this latter is what has happened, in a big way, via Big Food – the agriculture and aquaculture industries.

The increasing use of antibiotics in the meat and farmed fish industries has been a gargantuan scandal of misaligned incentives and irresponsible lobbying of governments. We have become blind to the reality that antibiotics given to farm animals to hasten their bulked-up bundling along to the food processing plant only means this:

Those antibiotics are passed along the food chain into the guts of the consumers of that meat and fish.

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