Antibiotic Resistance – a deadly problem

Chicken factoryThey’re called superbugs: bacteria we can’t kill with antibiotics. We can’t help but be scared, and we should be. When antibiotics stop working against bacteria, it can be deadly. The miracle of antibiotics, and their ability to quickly and easily conquer formerly 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. 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. Here in the US, we just had our first case of E. Coli resistant to the antibiotic of last resort, Colestin, and we have all been worried about MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staph Aureus), the so called flesh-eating bacteria.

The problem of resistance occurs because when bacteria are exposed to antibiotics over a long period of time, they eventually become resistant to those antibiotics. That’s why we worry when doctors over-prescribe them for patients who don’t really need them, but it’s their use on the farm that we should worry about even more. Many people are surprised learn that 80% of all the antibiotics we use are fed to farm animals daily, when they aren’t even sick. Farmers use them to make the animals grow faster, and help them to survive the over-crowded conditions in what’s known as factory farms. With daily dosing, it’s only a matter of time until bacteria develop resistance.

To make matters worse, resistant bacteria have the ability to transfer their resistance to other previously non-resistant bacteria, making them resistant too, 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.

Of course, the livestock farmers won’t admit responsibility. But, here’s 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.”  The American Medical Association called for an end to the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals years ago.

Tighter regulations go in to effect next year in the US, but experts worry about big loopholes. In addition, there are many other countries with no regulations concerning antibiotic use, and in the age of international trade and travel, resistant bacteria from other countries can easily be brought into this country.

With outbreaks of antibiotic resistant bacteria are in the news quite frequently these days, the vegetarian message here couldn’t be clearer. If we didn’t raise animals for food, we could conserve our antibiotics so that next time we find ourselves with an infection, doctors have the drugs available to treat it.

See further information about antibiotic resistance