Apparently a strain of antibiotic-resistant typhoid is on the loose in Pakistan. This is very, very serious news, particularly for a nation of self-medicating compulsive pill-poppers such as we are. While diseases are all caused by microbes, they are either viral or bacterial. You can catch germs or pick up microbes in mostly the same way—exposure to infected people, droplet infection if someone sneezes on you or in your vicinity, etc. But your ailment depends on what kind of microbe you land up with, bacteria or viral. They are different kinds of germs, and antibiotics cannot treat viral germs because of the way viruses are, biologically. In a nutshell, that means if you catch a cold, which is a viral condition, then taking Augmentin is not going to magically cure you. It is scientific logic. The only thing you are managing to accomplish is giving that viral microbe a handy cheat sheet on how to adapt itself to resist the effects of Augmentin, and while you might be feeling pretty happy and snot-free, it is another beast altogether when one has an actual bacterial infection and that same Augmentin falters.

Antibiotic-resistant disease is an extremely critical, grave situation, and can only be prevented or dealt with by responsible use of medication. In Pakistan, with the exception of only a few medicines, anything can be bought in a pharmacy without a prescription. This is not the case mostly anywhere else, and for a good reason: serious medicines require an attendant condition to warrant its usage. You cannot waltz into Boots and ask for Lexotanil with a side of Ciproxin off the top of your head. You have to have gone to a doctor, who has to be convinced that you need that medicine before you can take it. Modern medicine has done wonders for improving the human condition, but that shouldn’t also mean that we now descend into whimpering jelly every time we sneeze.

In developing countries, a panicked fear of disease does not seem terribly irrational. After watching my house staff demolish several foils of aspirin over two weeks, I arrived at the conclusion that for people with limited access to healthcare and a fuzzy, at best, knowledge of the human body, even a headache can morph into something terrifying. Pain, once understood, is much more manageable. If one knows that dehydration causes a headache, then one drinks ORS or salty lemonade and stays calm in a dark room. If you don’t know this causality, then you come home from a hot morning spent outdoors and when your head aches it could be anything, really. If you can’t deduce the reason for your pain, it may as well be a life-threatening tumour for all you know, and then you panic and either run to your local dispensary or pop a few Panadols, because that’s one thing you know will work. If you’re lucky, that’s all you need. We also are a nation who want our money’s worth, and when we go to doctors—regardless of class or background—we want proof: a lovely prescription. There is nothing more invigorating to a teetotal country than a nice old injection, or even better, a fat drip stuck into your arm. Needles equal instant relief, and so saline solutions are the preserve of all mohalla clinics, along with mysterious “taaqat ke teekay” (probably a dose of Vitamin D or B12). If you go to a doctor and all they do is tell you to drink some broth and wait it out, you will most likely call them a quack and a fraud to their face and go straight home to take an astronomical dose of Flagyll that will kill all the germs in your body except the required ones. After five days of this course you will feel better because most virals run their course after the same amount of time, you will triumphantly attribute this recovery to the Flagyll and spit on the poor doctor’s name forevermore.

The human body is a complex machine, and medicine is an ancient art. Allopathy or homeopathy, humans have found myriad ways to cure what ails us. Doctors spend years and years learning how to practice this sacred art, to dispense the knowledge and skill that keeps us healthy and alive. We need to learn to trust them and their judgment over Google searches; irresponsible medication is taking us to a solemn future. When diseases do not have cures, people die. Epidemics happen. The Black Plague is what happens, god forbid, or smallpox, or tuberculosis—diseases with no cure that killed thousands of people, and all we could do was stand by and pray. We are all stakeholders in our medical fate, and we need to take this responsibility seriously.


n            The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.