An Injection of Hope Into the Medical "Apocalypse"?

An Injection of Hope Into the Medical "Apocalypse"?

The original doom and gloom merchants touting a coming apocalypse were religious seers.

Nowadays, though, faith-based threats of calamity tend to be greeted with a flood of sassy Tweets, rather than waves of panic. "I used to have a job carrying those "End of the world" signs but I got fed up working the nigh shift", was how one comedian put it.

But even as the dread of theological doom has diminished the apocalyptic worldview has found new ways to trumpet our vulnerability, the most compelling coming with scientific gravitas. We've lived through the threat of mutually assured destruction and now we are grappling with a looming "climate change apocalypse" predicted for 2100, by the World Bank.

More recently, concerned health experts have begun using the language of Armageddon. Appearing before Parliament, Britain's chief medical officer described a rise in drug resistant infections as the "apocalyptic scenario...that when I need a new hip in 20 years I'll die from a routine infection because we've run out of antibiotics."

This week, in the second volume of her annual report, Dame Sally Davies further stressed:

"We need to work with everyone to ensure the apocalyptic scenario of widespread antimicrobial resistance does not become a reality."

She cites an urgent necessity for public as well as private investment in developing new antibiotics. In addition, her report emphasised the need for education in "appropriate antibiotic use among the public, managers and professionals". Overuse of antibiotics "increases the opportunity for the development of resistant strains".

But is "the end of modern medicine as we know it" - as Dr Margaret Chan, WHO director general, summarised this issue - all doom and gloom? Perhaps not, if in medicine - as in religion - there's more than one way to look at the apocalypse.

For instance, those end-of-the-world fears circulating as the Mayan calendar ended? They were not shared by the Mayans, who simply saw it as the beginning of a new cycle.

Equally, there are other ways to read the Bible's final chapter, Revelation, than forecasting a Hollywood-style pyrotechnics show leaving our planet in ashes. An understanding of the apocalypse that resonates with me points to humanity's emergence from the materialism which dogs us daily with individual and collective doom and gloom scenarios. This spiritual emergence is ongoing, individual by individual, and constructive rather than catastrophic.

Such step by step growth, which can involve healing, has its benefits. It freed me from recurring sinusitis which antibiotics failed to alleviate while leaving me with unwelcome side effects. A profound sense of divine goodness reached a deep-rooted fear within me and freed me from it. I have never suffered from that condition again.

That spiritual approach to mind-body medicine won't be everyone's choice for addressing their health needs but it illustrates a broad interest in looking beyond drug-based solutions, evidenced by an estimated £1.6 billlion spent annually on complementary and alternative medicines.

Considering a warning from Dame Sally that "if we don't get it right, we will find ourselves in a health system not dissimilar from the early 19th century", it shouldn't be surprising if more and more people look into such options.

What might be a more surprising thought is that encouraging, rather than opposing, a broader array of individual choices might significantly help achieve the medical goal of reducing use of antibiotics. A similar change has taken place in the realm of NHS mental health care, with drug-giving for mild and moderate depression giving place to talking therapies and prescriptions of self-help books.

One thing I've found helpful is realising the word "apocalypse" isn't an intrinsically negative word. It means an uncovering or disclosure. So facing an "antibiotic apocalypse" it's worth noting an "uncovering" going on at the heart of our health care: namely an increasing recognition that the patient's need is seldom purely physiological. In recent years a number of studies have shown a relation between thought and disease, notably links between stress and the body's ability to fight off a variety of infections.

What, then, if we were to add to the search for new antibiotics research that broadens and deepens our mind-body understanding? What would we find? Might thought itself also be a carrier of infection - especially fear? And could there be a hint of how to bolster immunity in the time-tested counsel from Greek philosopher Aristotle: "He who has overcome his fears will truly be free"?

Forward 400 years and the exiled follower of a Galilean carpenter added a "how to", writing: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." Thirteen centuries later the Spanish rabbi, physician and philosopher Maimonides said: "The physician should not treat the disease but the patient who is suffering from it."

No-one wants to return to the health care horrors of 200 years ago. But an injection of the mind-body wisdom of yesteryear might just help bolster our immunity to the doomsday scenarios of tomorrow.

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