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Bob Kustra, Reader’s Corner: Physician-scientist cautions against indiscriminate use of antibiotics

Antibiotics are wonder drugs that can thwart disease and save lives. But they also have the potential to trigger new health problems when used indiscriminately, according to medical doctor and microbiologist Martin J. Blaser.

In “Missing Microbes, How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling Our Modern Plagues,” Blaser offers a cautionary look at these powerful drugs and some of their unintended consequences. The two-edged nature of antibiotics is tied to the way they work, he explains. Antibiotics don’t just kill the “bad” bacteria that are making us sick; they also can destroy the “good” bacteria that help protect us from disease.

Using language that can be easily understood by a lay audience, Blaser takes his readers into the invisible world of microbes, a world that is unfamiliar to many of us. Microbes include the bacteria and other microorganisms that are found inside and on our bodies, and that far outnumber human cells. The trillions of microbes that inhabit our bodies do such things as digest lactose, make amino acids and break down fibers in foods, he writes. They also constitute an important arm of our immune system.

In “Missing Microbes,” Blaser makes the case that the overuse of antibiotics is a major cause of the loss of irreplaceable microbes, with potentially serious consequences for human health. According to his hypothesis, the reason a broad range of diseases are on the rise — including obesity, asthma, food allergies, esophageal reflux, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, childhood diabetes and ulcerative colitis — is because our microbial diversity is being compromised.

That’s not to say no one should use antibiotics. But Blaser is advocating a more judicious approach — one that stretches from parents with a sick child who are seeking quick relief, to physicians who must decide whether it’s really necessary to prescribe an antibiotic, to regulations and practices that govern antibiotic use in agriculture, to the pharmaceutical industry and what types of new antibiotics it focuses on developing. Blaser also points to Cesarean sections, which deprive a newborn of receiving its mother’s protective microbes, as another issue of concern, especially as the rate of C-section births in the U.S. continues to rise, and C-section rates around the world show “an astonishing variation.”

Blaser, who is director of the Human Microbiome Program at New York University and former president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, brings impressive credentials to “Missing Microbes,” and an enthusiasm for his subject that keeps the reader engaged. Timely and thought-provoking, his book offers a valuable perspective on health issues of increasing concern.

Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Blaser, are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.

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