Once Upon A Wolvog

Stories from the front lines

Anti-don’t: The Problem with Antibiotics


It’s a refrain heard continuously in The Year of the Flood and even more prevalently in Oryx and Crake: Don’t get infected, because it’ll be the end of you. Inevitably, it’s disease that kills the world, and infection that kills Jimmy in a slow, painful death. Despite the continuous referencing to the problems of new diseases and increasingly deadly microbes, I noticed that it wasn’t really mentioned by its true name: antibiotic resistance.

So, what is antibiotic resistance?

It’s a pretty simple concept. When you take an antibiotic, it doesn’t really target a specific bacteria in your system. Instead, it wipes out most of the ones it comes into contact with. Keyword: most. Some bacteria are ‘lucky’ enough to have a genetic mutation that lets them survive this attack. Because they’re not dead, and all the bacteria it was competing with are gone, they can multiply as much as they please.


Why is this a concern? We have other drugs to kill them, right?

We do! The problem is that these drugs work in the same way. They might kill the ones resistant to lesser drugs, but eventually the same thing will happen.
To make things worse, we’ve plateaued in terms of antibiotic discoveries, and we’re starting to find bacterium resistant to the ‘last resort’ drug in over 10 countries. To add to that, antibiotic resistance is killing 700 000 people per year, and we’re on track to have it wiping out 10 million in 2015! You can read more about this and get a more detailed story of the current situation here.

Orxy and Crake and the Underlying Causes of Resistance

There are two words that can encapsulate why this is becoming a huge problem: Overprescription and Antiseptics.  But let’s look at this through Oryx and Crake‘s world. In the compounds, nearly everything is artificial, and the pursuit of health and youth has led to incessant pill-popping. Everything is also highly sterilized: as a kid, Jimmy had to walk through ‘toxic disinfectants’ in order to prevent getting sick.  This overindulgence is  what kills Jimmy, in an indirect way: he injects himself with one of the most powerful cure-all medications -Crake’s pleeblands vaccine- to fix his infected foot, yet it does nothing. Basically, the over-prescription and consumption of drugs is what makes disease so effective in Atwood’s world- it’s highly evolved and subsequently lethal.

You might be thinking that it’s not an issue today. Surely we don’t consume so many drugs to make it like in the book?

Well, the reality is debatable, but some facts make it pretty clear. Some estimates put overprescription for illnesses as banal as sore throats as high as 60%, and the food industry alone uses over 63 000 metric tons of antibiotics. Doesn’t sound so insignificant now, does it?

Why aren’t the Pleeblanders Affected as much as Compounders?

I also noticed that antibiotic resistance and infection were a huge concern for the Compound people, but it wasn’t really a serious issue amongst pleeblanders. In The Year of the Flood, non-compounders are concerned with disease, but they don’t take measures as drastic as the compounders. They certainly don’t need vaccines just to go visit someplace, like Jimmy and Crake do!

The answer is a bit ironic, but studies done even today are confirming this: exposure, rather than sterility, is the best medicine for the prevention of allergies, asthma, and even potentially disease. If you play in the dirt, you’re exposing your immune system to (usually) low-grade irritants and infections, which builds up an effective response. This “training” helps when you confront something more serious; your body is more likely to fight it off. Tragically, the compounders are obsessed with fighting this reality, and because of their sterile world they depend on fallible drugs to keep them healthy.

If they all lived like the God’s Gardeners, would they be able to avoid this ultimate downfall? Or has Atwood’s world (and indeed our own) been twisted past the point where our natural systems can compensate for our artifice? But what we can say for certain is that in the long run, the cure-all isn’t always the true cure, whether it’s through resistance, or a corporation looking to deliberately infect people for the sake of profit.


3 thoughts on “Anti-don’t: The Problem with Antibiotics

  1. I’m so happy someone brought up this topic! I’ve always been against anti-bacterial anything. I see some of my peers pulling out their anti-bacterial Bath&BodyWorks stuff that smells so good and makes your hands all glittery and I cringe a little bit. Well, I don’t want to say I’ve never used it before (sometimes you have to when the soap dispensers in the bathroom are empty!) but this level of fear in the face of germs I think is just plain unhealthy. What I’m curious about is what caused all of it in the first place? I can remember when I was back in elementary school, when they first implemented anti-bacterial soap dispensers in the hallways of my school. Something about the outbreak of H1N1. Somewhere along the way, we’ve become less faithful in our bodies to be able to do what they have evolved to do and that is keep up healthy and alive. Doing too little to help your body prevent you from getting sick is one thing, but doing too much can be just as harmful.

    It’s as the saying goes: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Your body knows a lot more than you think.


  2. You are making a very good point. However, I think you might be confusing antibiotics with antiseptics. Antiseptics do not produce antibiotic resistant bacteria, it produces antiseptic resistant bacteria. There is a difference between those two.

    Antibiotics are used to fight infection. If an infection is already present in the organism, it will eventually cause gangrene (among other complications), which in turn could lead to a lethal outcome or an amputation of the body part that is being infected.

    Antiseptics on the other hand are used to combat the infection before it begins. For example, if you fell in a very dirty place and cut yourself it might be a good idea not to take your chances and use some antiseptics after washing away the dirt with water.

    That said you are right, we are in a pickle when it comes to antibiotics because bacteria are becoming more and more resistant to the antibiotics that we currently have. The reason for it, is not the humans, but the livestock. Most of the antibiotics are used for livestock. Due to the conditions that they are being kept in, they will not survive until slaughter, unless given antibiotics. That is one of the major reasons why we have those antibiotic resistant bacteria.


  3. Oh wow, what a coincidence. Just the other day, after seeing a video of it, I read this article about how children in Siberia would throw ice cold water over their heads while standing outside in the snow. Apparently, when the children do that regularly over the course of a few weeks it actually strengthens their immune system and makes them more resilient to viruses. It even got to the point where if one child was sick the others wouldn’t catch it. After reading that article as well your post I definitely do think that exposure on its own can be great and that more parents should be less paranoid about letting their children catch germs. Sure they might get sick for a bit but in the long run it’ll only make them healthier.


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