[FOUNTAIN]The bugs are winningOn a Sunday morning in November 1942, Bostonians were shocked after reading newspaper headlines that 400 persons were killed in a night club fire. At every emergency room in the city, people were dying from infections. Under pressure, the U.S. government decided to use a secret medicine that was under the control of the military. That was the debut of penicillin, the “magic bullet” that killed staphylococcus. Penicillin had been first developed in 1928 in England, but its use in 1942 was the first time such a large amount was used. Surprised by the antibiotic’s effectiveness, people increasingly used it as if it were a panacea. But bacteria became resistant to penicillin, ending the dream. The medicine began to fail.
The Vietnam War made things worse. In order to protect soldiers from sexually transmitted diseases from Vietnamese prostitutes, the military injected penicillin recklessly. In the mid-1970s, a strain of gonorrhea became resistant to penicillin and spread quickly to Asia, Europe and the United States. Korean troops in Vietnam brought it here. A new antibiotic, tetracycline, was soon developed, but that replacement did not work for long either, and bacteria developed a new resistance.
Sixty years have passed since penicillin made its debut, and the battle between antibiotics and sexually transmitted diseases continues.
According to a recent report of the National Health Insurance Corporation, the number of people with sexually transmitted diseases, including gonorrhea and syphilis, is growing fast. As quinoline antibiotics, particularly effective for gonorrhea, began losing strength, the number of gonorrhea cases in Korea rose from 47,000 in 2000 to 82,000 in 2001, and there are reports of new bacteria that are too strong to be killed with any currently used antibiotics.
Historians say epidemics are the products of civilization. They say the Crusades triggered the Black Plague and the Renaissance triggered syphilis. Historians also say the industrial revolution contributed to the spread of tuberculosis. Sexual morality is declining rapidly today as the sex industry grows. Will we be able to fight against sexually transmitted diseases by developing new antibiotics? No medicine is effective forever in our world, and new strains of disease are being discovered daily. What else can we do except to lead a solitary, restrained life?
by Lee Kyu-youn
The writer is a deputy crime news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.