Antibiotics – End of the Miracle, Beginning of a Nightmare

Pigs confinedThere’s an emergency brewing out there. The miracle of antibiotics, and their ability to quickly and easily conquer once often-deadly, common infections, is fading, and the nightmare of death and disease from bacteria may be about to begin – if we don’t act soon.

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.

Many medical authorities from around the world, and from right here in the good old US of A, are starting ring the alarm bells. For instance, Britain’s most senior medical adviser has warned that the rise in drug-resistant diseases could trigger a national emergency comparable to a catastrophic terrorist attack, pandemic flu or major coastal flooding.

Dame Sally Davies, their chief medical officer (equivalent to our Surgeon General), said the threat from infections that are resistant to frontline antibiotics was so serious that the issue should be added to the government’s national risk register of civil emergencies.

She described what she called an “apocalyptic scenario” where people going for simple operations in 20 years’ time would die of routine infections, “because we have run out of antibiotics”. Drug resistance is emerging in diseases across the board. Davies said 80% of gonorrhea was now resistant to the frontline antibiotic tetracycline, and infections were rising in young and middle-aged people. Multi-drug resistant TB was also a major threat, she said. Another worrying trend is the rise in infections that are resistant to powerful antibiotics called carbapenems, which doctors rely on to tackle the most serious infections.

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. 80% of the antibiotics in the United States are used on farms. (The other 20% is prescribed by doctors for human use and over-prescribing is also a cause for concern). The practice, far from abating, is getting worse with sales of antibiotics to factory farms growing 2% over last year. The problem is that, with repeated use, all antibiotics become less and less effective because the bacteria develop resistance to it. According to former FDA commissioner, David Kessler, “Rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another’s waste.”

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.

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. One 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.

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.”

The Food and Drug Administration systematically monitors the meat and poultry sold in supermarkets around the country for the presence of disease-causing bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. These food products are bellwethers that tell us how bad the crisis of antibiotic resistance is getting. And they’re telling us it’s getting worse. This year, the FDA found that 74 percent of bacterially tainted chicken products harbored germs that were resistant to one or more types of antibiotics. For turkey products, more than three-quarters contained E. coli, and of those samples, 75 percent were resistant to one or more types of antibiotics.

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.

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.