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Podcast: Bacteria vs. Human — We May Never Win

16/11/2016 1:55 PM IST | Updated 28/11/2016 8:50 AM IST
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If we are to trust Elon Musk, and if humans actually become interplanetary imperialists, we're not too sure that they will survive for too long. But, one thing we can be sure about is that their bacteria will endure. From some perspectives, humans can be seen as carriers that bacteria are using to expand their reach over the universe. In the heyday of the Space Race that took place during the Cold War, several people were revelling in the glory of satellites and the domination of the universe by technology. They felt strong, as if they were the rulers of the universe. Their vanity was quickly checked by the fact that humans could finally be nothing but bacteria vessels.

Why, you ask, are bacteria being given so much importance? While invisible to the naked eye, the human body is in fact populated by several microscopic life forms, collectively known as the human microbiota. This includes fungi and other microorganisms such as archaea in addition to bacteria, although it is the latter that are particularly abundant—so much so that for many years scientists actually thought that the human body had ten times more bacterial microbes than human cells. While scientists now know that the numbers are not so skewed, they still agree that there the human body consists of more bacteria than human cells.

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While most of these bacteria are symbiotic and often quite beneficial, some of them are destructive and can cause some serious issues in a human's quest for happiness. To deal with the malign bacteria, which killed a fair number of our ancestors, humans discovered penicillin, an especially helpful group of bacteria that can fight and kill the bad guys. But the villains have learnt how to defeat penicillin, rendering it useless. It's not just penicillin, a lot of other drugs that we once used as antibiotics are now useless. As bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics, we see ourselves entering what is called a post-antibiotic world. Yet another thing to add to the general depression of post-modernism.

This leaves scientists, doctors and self-styled humanists worried. In 2011, the Union government came up with a National Policy for Containment of Antimicrobial Resistance in India. The policy states: "Antimicrobial resistance in pathogens causing important communicable diseases has become a matter of great public health concern globally including our country. Resistance has emerged even to newer, more potent antimicrobial agents like carbapenems." A March 2016 paper on "Antibiotic Resistance in India: Drivers and Opportunities for Action" in PLOS Medicine, reveals the need for quick action in India: "Antibiotic resistance is a global public health threat, but nowhere is it as stark as in India. The crude infectious disease mortality rate in India today is 416.75 per 100,000 persons... twice the rate in the US (200) when antibiotics were introduced."

Hear more episodes of The Intersection here.

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