The Return of Suppurating Pustules

Around the end of last year, Unilever came up with a ridiculously long, fuzzy and sentimental ad film, which did not pitch soap, or detergent, or ice cream, but the idea that you should have children.

Let us for the moment put aside the conspiracy theory that Unilever is encouraging people to go out and breed because, not satisfied with selling household and body cleaning things to its existing customers, it wants even more customers in the future. After all, it’s not demanding that all people have kids, just trying to reassure the people who’ve already decided to do it that their choice isn’t that bad after all, considering that scientific progress is reducing the risk of famine and drought.

Now read this:

With antibiotics losing usefulness so quickly — and thus not making back the estimated $1 billion per drug it costs to create them — the pharmaceutical industry lost enthusiasm for making more. In 2004, there were only five new antibiotics in development, compared to more than 500 chronic-disease drugs for which resistance is not an issue — and which, unlike antibiotics, are taken for years, not days. Since then, resistant bugs have grown more numerous and by sharing DNA with each other, have become even tougher to treat with the few drugs that remain. In 2009, and again this year, researchers in Europe and the United States sounded the alarm over an ominous form of resistance known as CRE, for which only one antibiotic still works.

Health authorities have struggled to convince the public that this is a crisis. In September, Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a blunt warning: “If we’re not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era. For some patients and some microbes, we are already there.”


The burst in food production that Unilever is counting on to make the world a better place for the next generation could be totally overshadowed by the bacterial disease’s big comeback, as antibiotic resistance becomes widespread. Actually, not just bacterial disease:

Many treatments require suppressing the immune system, to help destroy cancer or to keep a transplanted organ viable. That suppression makes people unusually vulnerable to infection. Antibiotics reduce the threat; without them, chemotherapy or radiation treatment would be as dangerous as the cancers they seek to cure. Dr. Michael Bell, who leads an infection-prevention division at the CDC, told me: “We deal with that risk now by loading people up with broad-spectrum antibiotics, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. But if you can’t do that, the decision to treat somebody takes on a different ethical tone. Similarly with transplantation. And severe burns are hugely susceptible to infection. Burn units would have a very, very difficult task keeping people alive.”

Let’s not forget the charming symptoms that arise out of bacterial diseases, like pus filled sores, rotting flesh, and oozing lesions.

I do see the prospect of a world where we have no defence against bacterial disease as providing a small benefit: the world will become a more horrible place, but life will become more worth living. More so for people like me who find it hard to believe in the existence of God, and struggle to create our own meaning in life.

Trying to add some sort of meaning to our current, prosperous, lives is an exercise in dizzying scale. We are aware about the whole interconnected world, and want to make a difference to it. But we can’t. There is a total mismatch between the scale of our experience and the scale of our ability, and being unable to deal with this causes anxiety.

The way to deal with this is to enter a sort of (non-Total) Perspective Vortex that makes us realise that our lives are not that significant and so we should just get on with making them as pleasurable as possible. One way of doing this is to believe in God and one’s own relative insignificance and imminent danger of being cursed. Another is to read or listen to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech (Zen Pencils webcomic, YouTube video) every week or so. But if rampant bacterial infection makes life short, fragile, and in constant danger of going horribly wrong,  that perspective comes much more easily. Every day spent without having your face fall off will be a day lived in gratitude.

In a way, then, Unilever remains right: this is indeed the best time to bring a child into the world, if what you want for that child is not a happy life, but a meaningful one. I just wish their ad were more accurate about it.

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