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The Human Hand in Creating Superbugs

Superbugs are frightening and the latest news on this medical front isn’t good. Investigators from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis discovered that two genes (dubbed NDM-1 and KPC) that confer resistance to carbapenems—one of the most powerful classes of antibiotics—readily transfer among Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumonia, and other members of the family Enterobacteriaceae.1 These bacteria cause many hospital infections. Once they acquire resistance to carbapenems, there is no way to treat the infection.

According to Gautam Dantas, one of the researchers who made this discovery, “Carbapenems are one of our last resorts for treating bacterial infections, what we use when nothing else works…Given what we know now, I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that for certain types of infections, we may be looking at the start of the post-antibiotic era, a time when most of the antibiotics we rely on to treat bacterial infections are no longer effective.”2

Bacteria and other infectious agents cause us quite a bit of misery. Why would an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God create a world filled with bugs that can so readily evade our efforts to keep them in check?

This is such an important question that Reasons to Believe (RTB) has developed a creation model for the origin of infectious disease. The keystone features of this model are (1) God created bacteria to serve a beneficial role and (2) bacteria evolved into pathogens after their creation through a variety of mechanisms, including horizontal gene transfer.

One feature missing from this model is the role human sin played (and continues to play) in pathogen-induced suffering. Recent work by investigators from the Australian National University (ANU) Medical School demonstrates that human moral failings contribute significantly to the rise and spread of antibiotic resistance among bacteria.3

Most scientists who study causes of antibiotic resistance focus on drug usage. The more frequently antibiotics are prescribed, the greater the likelihood that bacteria acquire drug resistance. The ANU Medical School researchers, however, wanted to understand if other factors might contribute to this major threat to modern medicine. They statistically compared the role antibiotic usage plays in the emergence of antibiotic resistance to governmental, social, and economic factors. The researchers conducted their study in Europe because it is the only region of the world where there is good data from multiple countries.

To their surprise, the researchers discovered that antibiotic usage only contributed to about 33 percent of the average antibiotic resistance in each country and that income level made no contribution at all. The two most significant contributors to the average antibiotic resistance were governmental corruption and private health care expenditures. In other words, the greater the corruption and the more spent on private health care, the greater the average antibiotic resistance in a given country. The researchers speculate that when governments are corrupt and health care is administered in the private sector there are less controls and oversight, which can lead to ill-advised treatment protocols and a misuse of antibiotics. Human moral failing, not antibiotic use, is primarily responsible for the rise in antibiotic resistance and the concomitant pain and suffering that goes along with it.

Pain and suffering characterize the world in which we live. Too often, skeptics will reject belief in God (and with it the truth claims of the Christian faith) because they can’t reconcile these features with the existence of the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving biblical Creator. Philosophers refer to this conundrum as the problem of natural evil.

Philosophers and theologians recognize two kinds of evil: moral and natural. Moral evil stems from human action (or inaction). Natural evil occurs as a consequence of nature—earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, diseases, and the like. For many people, natural evil presents a greater theological challenge than moral evil. A skeptic might admit that God can be excused from responsibility for the free-will actions of human beings who violate His standard of goodness. But natural disasters and disease don’t result from human activity—therefore, this type of “evil” must be attributed solely to God.

Yet, as the recent research on antibiotic resistance illustrates, moral evil can greatly exacerbate the pain and suffering caused by natural phenomena. That is, what we call natural evil is really moral evil in disguise. For more examples of human moral failings masquerading as natural evil check out these other articles from RTB:

  1. Washington University School of Medicine, “Common Bacteria on the Verge of becoming Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs,” ScienceDaily, posted March 25, 2015,
  2. Ibid.
  3. Peter Collignon et al., “Antimicrobial Resistance: The Major Contribution of Poor Governance and Corruption to This Growing Problem,” PLOS ONE 10 (March 18, 2015): doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0116746.