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.