Mexico, flu, antibiotics, and death.

Everyone seems to wonder why people are dying from the “swine flu” in Mexico, but not in other countries where the virus has been confirmed. (The one US death was a little boy visiting from Mexico with unidentified “underlying health issues.”)

I have a theory. Or an idea. Or a question.

It is common practice in Mexico to self-medicate with antibiotics at the first sign of illness. (Antibiotics are widely available there without a prescription.)

Antibiotics kill bacteria, including commensal bacteria. 

Commensal bacteria are an important component of the human immune system.

So, are people who self-prescribe antibiotics for a viral illness compromising their immune reponse to that illness?



(If you’re interested in coverage of swine flu, especially as it relates to factory farming, check out The Ethicurean‘s Aporkalypse Now series.)


  1. Matt SF said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

    Commensal bacteria play a huge role is protecting us from infection. For example, the primary reason why you shouldn’t feed babies raw honey (infant botulism & botulinum spore protection).

    However, their role in protecting the human body from a relatively unseen virus is likely small at best.

    It’s been a historical trend that certain subgroups of the human population are more susceptible to certain microbes than others. Whether it be their immune system can’t respond as quickly, or it responds too aggressively, will be an important bullet point after the immunologists complete their investigations. Other factors like quality of hospital care, diet, or early detection will also be important variables to consider.

  2. Rosalee de la Foret said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    My dad who lives in Mexico just emailed this week to say he has a boil and has been prescribed anti-biotics. Every time he goes to the doctor he is given anti-biotics, but usually emails me to see if there is something else he can take.

  3. Mama JJ said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    Hm, interesting thoughts/questions, but I’m not sure… We lived in Nicaragua for several years and my impression is that people here use more antibiotics than our campesino neighbors who were too poor to see the doctor much, let alone buy meds. Then again, the Nican city folks might be a whole different story, having much more access to the meds… Don’t know anything about Mexico…

  4. crabappleherbs said,

    May 3, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

    Matt SF: Yes, there are certainly a lot of factors to consider. I phrased it as a question because I don’t think there’s any way for anyone to know whether there’s a connection at this point . . . it’s just an interesting geeky thought for people who are as fascinated by the human microbiota as I am.

    Rosalee: Sigh. Doctors overprescribe antibiotics here, too. It’s a problem all over the world, and for so many reasons…

    Mama JJ: I don’t know how cultural/medical practices in Nicaragua compare to Mexico, either. And I don’t know how use of antibiotics in Mexico varies according to demographics. Interesting questions, of course.

  5. Sudeep said,

    May 4, 2009 @ 10:28 am

    I also would dare to disagree with your notion partly .If you say Mexico they take antibiotics regularly ,and not in US and Canada … so more people die their .well even here in Canada prescribing antibiotics is so common even for cold or flu .. so why are they not dieing ..
    Lot is to blame the hygienic conditions of those workers who actually worked with those pigs suffering from H1N1 influenza type A …. nothing else .


  6. Matt SF said,

    May 5, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

    I totally understand. I’m one of those geeky folks who made an early career from the lil buggers so it’s been fascinating to sit back and watch the public side of the “public health” paranoia during this swine flu debacle.

    Fortunately, the lethality and infection rates have been fairly low when compared to “regular flu”.

    I just wish more folks took your viewpoint about the proper use of antibiotics because our greed and ignorance in this matter will eventually come back to bite us.

  7. Jan Renwick said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 1:18 am

    I would like to have your blog sent direct to me but see no links to do same – very interesting data here cheers from down under

  8. Maritzia said,

    May 6, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    I think one of the big issues is lack of health insurance. Many Mexicans wait as long as possible to see a doctor because of the expense, so they are in worse straights by the time they finally seek treatment.

    So far, many of the cases in the US have been among people who have traveled recently to Mexico or people that live with them. That would suggest that these people are at the very least solidly middle class and more likely to have health insurance, so more likely to seek treatment early. I think if we see a more widespread infection in the US, we’ll see more deaths as more people without insurance become infected.

  9. Heidi@AwesomeHerbs said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    Interesting discussion! I know a woman whose sister has 2 kids {in IA} with the swine flu~ I mean, H1N1. I also didn’t know that antibiotics are so easily gotten in Mexico.

  10. Greg @ Herbal Remedies said,

    May 19, 2009 @ 12:52 am

    It is too bad that so many people around the world misunderstand some of the most common medicines that they themselves take every day.

    H1N1 is a virus…not a bacteria. Therefore, antibiotics will do little, if anything, to prevent H1N1 infections.

    Although, it IS well known that misuse or overuse of antibiotics can contribute to new bacterial strains that are resistant to common antibiotics… yet another reason to keep their use to an absolute minimum.

    Echinacea, or possible a lemon balm tea would do a more effective job at reducing a viral infection like H1N1 than even the most powerful antibiotics.

  11. Jan S. said,

    May 27, 2009 @ 3:55 pm


    I would be interested to know more about Lemon Balm and viral infections. I planted some lemon balm a while ago and it is doing pretty well, but frankly I don’t use it for much. Perhaps I will start using it for tea.


  12. Greg said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 3:53 am

    Jan, Lemon Balm, like so many other herbs, is just recently getting the proper scientific study it deserves. It’s a bit outside the scope of the blog to go into it all, but I think a lemon balm tea is an excellent tea to ward off certain virus outbreaks like herpes. Some experimental studies have shown lemon balm to even have some anti- HIV properties! It is also widely accepted as a calming herb, and studies have shown it works well in decreasing stress and anxiety.

    I think a tea would be a great way to absorb the medicinal benefits of the herb. I the site owner will let this link post, I would advise checking out more about it at my site,

    I would love to grow some myself, enjoy!

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