Antibiotics Under Threat

It’s scary and it can be deadly when antibiotics stop working against bacteria. This is known as antibiotic resistance. Patients suffer and can die from antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Unfortunately, this is happening more and more these days. Many doctors warn that we may soon have no effective antibiotics – a medical catastrophe. In fact, the problem has become so widespread and serious that the World Health Organization calls antibiotic resistance one of the three greatest threats to human health. As with so many threats besetting humanity, the problem is linked to meat.

Most farm animals these days are raised on what are known as factory farms. On factory farms, animals are badly crowded together, and overcrowding promotes the spread of disease. To enable farm animals to survive under such harsh and unnatural conditions, farmers must routinely give them antibiotics in their daily feed. 85% of the antibiotics in the United States are used on farms. (The other 15% is prescribed by doctors for human use and overprescribing is also a cause for concern). The problem is that, with repeated use, all antibiotics become less and less effective because the bacteria develop resistance to it.

To make matters worse, resistant bacteria have the ability to transfer their resistance to other previously non-resistant bacteria, making them resistant even though they have not been directly exposed to antibiotics themselves. These bacteria can then spread throughout the farm to other animals, to the farmers themselves, and from the farmers into the broader community. And of course, these bacteria are also transported into the community through the meat itself.

You may have heard of a very dangerous bacterium in the news lately called MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus).  MRSA causes serious, sometime deadly, resistant infections among healthy individuals, tragically including high school students and athletes. In one study, researchers found this deadly bacterium on 70% of pigs in Iowa and Illinois. And even more troubling, they found that 40% of farmers were carrying MRSA into the community, where children are particularly at risk. Another study found that resistant bacteria were being spread by flies.

Resistant bacteria are also making their way into our food supply. In one study of meat collected from supermarkets, almost all the bacteria found were resistant to at least one antibiotic, and over half the bacteria tested were resistant to three different antibiotics. Dr. Davidson H. Hamer, assistant professor of medicine at Tufts University, states, “The fact that one’s Sunday roast could literally be harboring a deadly and potentially untreatable pathogen no longer leaves any excuse for complacency.”

Of course, the livestock farmers won’t admit responsibility. But, listen to what Dr. A. Khan, a deputy director at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said at a recent congressional hearing in Washington, D.C.: “There’s unequivocal evidence [of a] relationship between use of antibiotics in animals and transmission of antibiotic-resistant bacteria causing adverse effects in humans.” At the same hearing, Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said that researchers used molecular fingerprinting to follow an outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria, “You actually can trace the specific bacteria around, and they find that the resistant strains in humans match the resistant strains in the animals.” Even the reluctant US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has finally acknowledged the problem. But none of this is news. The American Medical Association called for an end to the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals years ago.

Don’t hold your breath for things to change. While both the FDA and the USDA have known about this problem for many years, they have chosen not to act on it.  The same goes for congress. Bipartisan sponsored bills that would end the practice have gone nowhere, including the latest proposed legislation that would ban farmers from using seven classes of antibiotics critical for human health, except to treat sick animals.

Recently, the FDA, in a new but largely symbolic move, issued an advisory against the routine feeding of antibiotics to farm animals, because the practice is breeding resistant bacteria that are infecting humans more and more frequently. But the advisory has no force at all. It’s only a recommendation.

The practice of medicine was very different 100 years ago. The most common diseases were bacterial infections such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, intestinal infection and kidney infection. When antibiotics were invented, they were hailed as nearly miracle drugs. Seemingly overnight, once deadly infections were transformed into nothing more than minor inconveniences. In large part because the threat of deadly bacterial infection was greatly reduced, life spans increased dramatically. During the new age of antibiotics, more and more people could look forward to retirement and old age. Today, bacterial infection doesn’t even make it to the top seven causes of death in the United States.

But this is starting to change.  The miracle drugs of the 20th century are under threat. Doctors are frustrated by rising numbers of infections resistant to their arsenal of antibiotics. When these medicines don’t work, patients suffer or even die, and our nation’s health tab also ratchets upward. Medical researchers in Cook County Hospital in Chicago have determined that antibiotic resistant infections now cost America $26 billion every year. More importantly, doctors worry that the day may soon come when their prescriptions will no longer work, and we will go back to the old days when infections were rampant and people died from them.

Outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are in the news quite frequently these days. Many infections caused by bacteria, such as Staph, Strep, Salmonella, Chlamydia and Gonorrhea, that were once easily cured with antibiotics are again threatening our health and even our lives due to antibiotic resistance. In one case, a 12-year-old child was infected with Salmonella that was resistant to 13 different antibiotics.

As of this writing, the latest outbreak of antibiotic resistant bacteria in food was the recall of over 36 million pounds of antibiotic resistant salmonella found in ground turkey made by Cargill. Health officials say the turkey being recalled contains Salmonella Heidelberg, a strain that is resistant to most commonly prescribed antibiotics.

Just imagine what humanity stands to lose if the antibiotics become useless. We can’t wait any longer to take action. This is where the vegetarian diet comes into play. By adopting a vegetarian diet, you can help reduce the demand for meat and thus the amount of antibiotics used in agriculture. If you’re not yet ready to become a vegetarian, even cutting down your meat consumption can make a big difference.  In doing so, you’ll be protecting your own health and the health of the whole community by helping to pre­vent the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria.