About antibiotics in survival or other austere settings
(The following is an excerpt from the introduction to my upcoming book on antibiotics in survival and remote scenarios)
In “War of the Worlds”, a novel by H. G. Wells that became a 1938 radio broadcast and later a hit movie (twice!), an invasion force from Mars attacks the Earth. As the Martians lay waste to the entire planet, no weapon wielded by man can stop the imminent destruction of his civilization. Only when a bacterial infection takes root in the Martian force does the destruction finally cease. The aliens, it turns out, had no natural resistance to Earth’s tiniest inhabitants and they were annihilated in short order.
early 1900s novel by H.G. Wells made news as a radio broadcast in 1938, then hit movies in 1953 and 2005.
If we leave the realm of science fiction, there are many instances where even the strongest creatures on Earth fall victim to bacteria. I read recently about the death of Tilikum, a killer whale at the Sea World Marine park in Orlando, Florida whose life was portrayed in the film “Blackfish”. Like many large animals forced to live a cramped existence, Tilikum was subject to both physical and mental stress. In 2017, the powerful 22 foot-long, 12,500-pound whale died as a result of a bacterial lung infection.
Just as bacteria destroyed the Martians in “War of the Worlds” and Tilikum at Sea World, infection can take away the life of the healthiest human. Over the ages, they have done so to many millions. Even in modern times, large numbers of people are killed by them every year in less developed countries. Not that developed nations are immune: Cases of exotic infections resistant to treatment can be found in the most modern medical facilities.
But what is infection?
Infection is the invasion of a living being by a pathogen, an organism which can cause disease. These organisms, usually too small to be seen with the naked eye, subsequently multiply and cause effects on their “hosts” which are detrimental to health. The end result if untreated can be life-threatening.
Pathogens include various types of bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi. The species that can produce ill effects in humans are numerous, but not all micro-organisms cause disease; indeed, most are perfectly harmless. Others are beneficial: Certain gut bacteria are necessary for the proper digestion of food.
Yet, some are downright deadly, like the Ebola virus or the bacteria that causes Pneumonic Plague. These pathogens may arrive in a community unexpectedly in sudden outbreaks or, like Malaria in tropical nations, may represent a constant threat throughout the year. As well, new diseases are constantly emerging to threaten society, whether they are new to a particular area or new to science altogether.
A number of infectious diseases consistently rank in the top ten of global deaths every year, including certain respiratory and intestinal illnesses. Therefore, it can be argued that the development of antibiotics to kill the pathogen responsible is the most important advance in medicine over the last century. These drugs have turned millions of what were once inevitable deaths to avoidable ones.
Yet, like most medical marvels, there is another side to the coin. Overuse of antibiotics, especially in food-producing livestock, has caused many bacteria to exhibit resistance to these drugs. Some pathogens, such as some strains of Tuberculosis, have mutated to become impervious to all known medications. Despite constant efforts to develop new antibiotics, the increase in numbers of resistant bacteria is outpacing the research. Therefore, it is important to use antibiotics wisely.
Obtaining the knowledge to use antibiotics in a safe manner is the domain of medical professionals, but under what circumstances would it be appropriate to use antibiotics if you’re not a physician? In normal times, hardly ever.
My writings are mostly about medical preparedness for major disasters, remote locations, and medical missions in underdeveloped countries; in other words, situations where the ambulance is not just around the corner. These include disasters like the earthquake in Haiti some years ago, when it was difficult due to sheer numbers for the ill and injured to get the medical care they needed. If there is a functioning modern medical system where you are, seek it out. In a backcountry expedition, ocean voyage, or the aftermath of a major disaster, however, routine emergency services may not be accessible. In these cases, the average citizen becomes the highest medical asset left, at least for the time being.
In short term events, medical help is on the way, and the likelihood of a bad outcome is small. In longer-term events, however, the risk associated with an infection that is ignored for weeks is significant. Indeed, it could mean the difference between life and death.
Therefore, knowledge and training is important for those that will be thrust in the role of healthcare providers in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Even healers in olden times based their actions on observations regarding a certain herb’s effect on an illness. This led to an entire discipline called herbalism, which was, back then, the standard of conventional medical practice.
Obtaining antibiotics for disaster medical storage is important. If the family medic is armed with a method to fight infection, the chance for success increases, even if everything else fails.
A non-medical person having antibiotics on hand in disaster settings is considered controversial by the conventional medical wisdom, and for good reason. Yet, if a family member is dying of an infection and there is no ambulance coming to render aid or hospital to treat the patient, the average citizen may become the end of the line with regards to the well-being of their people. Learning about infection and the medicines that treat it is a prerequisite for the effective “medic” in austere scenarios.
In the history channel film “After Armageddon”, a paramedic takes his family on the road after an apocalyptic event. During their travels, they meet a community that can use someone with medical training and join it to start a new life.
All hands are needed, however, to grow food and perform other activities of daily survival. Our hero is assigned to duties to which he is not accustomed and ends up with a minor injury which becomes infected. Unfortunately, the medical supplies of the community are limited; they don’t include antibiotics. He watches his infection spread over the next few weeks, and despite his extensive training, it eventually kills him.
To be effective in your attempt to prevent avoidable deaths in any situation where modern medical care is not accessible, learn the basics of infectious disease and the substances that treat it. By absorbing information and strategies on how to deal with disease-causing microbes, family members will be more effective in keeping their loved ones healthy during emergencies.
Find out more about antibiotics (a lot more) and 150 other medical topics off the grid in the award-winning 700-page Third Edition of the Survival Medicine Handbook (make sure you have the latest edition, they’re still selling the Second edition alongside it on Amazon). And, hey, don’t forget to check out Nurse Amy’s entire line of medical kits and individual items at store.doomandbloom.net.