Antibiotic Nation

by Garreth Myers


A few decades ago, the word antibiotic would bring to mind just a single word - penicillin; however, today most of us are familiar with Tetracycline, Erythromycin, Clindamycin and a host of other antibiotics. We depend on pills and medications for almost every illness, every sign of illness and for the slightest aches and pains. While this in itself is a serious problem, the implications of such a dependence and over reliance on antibiotics is even more worrying. Antibiotics are prescribed specifically in the treatment of bacterial infections. In certain severe situations, the timely use of an antibiotic could even save a person's life. Over the counter antibiotics are no different to prescription ones, as they too are meant to treat bacterial infections. Unfortunately there are many of us who are so accustomed to popping pills like antacids and aspirins that self treatment with over the over the counter antibiotics just comes naturally. Antibiotics are quite useless in the treatment of viral infections, which include a common cold, bronchitis and sore throat. The unnecessary and excessive use of antibiotics could even lead to antibiotic-resistant infections in the future.

As medical science progresses and develops new medications to combat harmful, infectious and disease-causing microorganisms, bacteria are evolving too, to better their chances of survival in their human hosts. This means that an antibiotic that worked today may not work tomorrow, for the same disease, if it is caused by a different strain of the bacteria. One of the bacteria that have become immune to antibiotics is the Multidrug Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). This bacterium has developed resistance to many common types of antibiotics, which include:

  • Penicillin
  • Tetracycline
  • Cephalosporin
  • Vancomycin, which is usually regarded as the "last resort" antibiotic

There have been many instances where patients have died from an infection because the drugs they relied on for combating the bacteria had become useless.

Staphylococcus Aureus bacteria are found on the skin and the mucus membranes of roughly 33% of the world's population. On its own, the bacterium is fairly harmless, but if given a chance to overgrow, staph infections can range from minor (acne) to life-threatening (sepsis and meningitis). These bacteria are highly adaptable and medical experts have not been able to keep them from developing resistance to antibiotics. Since there is no vaccine against these bacteria either, the strains of Staphylococcus Aureus that have become immune to antibiotics are deadly. According to the Archives of Internal Medicine and the American Medical Association, the antibiotic-resistant staph:

  • Is responsible for around 19,000 deaths in the US each year
  • Leads to at least 7 million emergency room and primary care visits a year
  • Causes approximately 100,000 serious blood infections every year

Everly Macario, founder of the MRSA Research Center at the University of Chicago claims that antibiotics are becoming increasing ineffective against life-threatening infections. To make matters worse, the Staphylococcus Aureus are not the only bacteria to develop resistance towards antibiotics. Some of the other bacteria that have also become immune to antibiotics include:

  • Salmonella and E. Coli, which directly come from contaminated food
  • Ciostridium difficile, a microbe that causes colitis and debilitating chronic diarrhea
  • Mycobacterium Tuberculosis, the species of bacteria responsible for most instances of tuberculosis (TB)

There are also certain types of bacteria that are resistant towards all antibiotic drugs. This is quite dangerous, because bacteria are particularly good at communicating resistance across species and at a genetic level.

Antibiotics in the Health Care Industry

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), antimicrobials are among the most commonly misused medications, mainly due to their widespread familiarity, easy availability, low cost and relative safety. In the year 2011, Dr. James Hughes, Professor of Global Health and Medicine at Emory University made a formal plea on the matter of antibiotic use in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Back then it was believed that around 50% of antibiotic use was either inappropriate of unnecessary. In his plea, Dr. Hughes asked fellow physicians to act responsibly and reminded them that the antibiotic epidemic & drug resistance was a growing threat to global public health.

In Food Industry

Antibiotics like penicillin and tetracycline are also given to the livestock that are used for the production of food. The use of antibiotics in this case is aimed at promoting animal growth and preventing infections.

  • In the year 2010 tetracycline accounted for around 42% of all the antibiotics given to livestock in the US
  • The amount of tetracycline utilized by humans that year was around 100,000 pounds, whereas 12,300,000 pounds were given to food-producing animals.
  • Around 1.5 million pounds of penicillin were distributed for human use, whereas more than 1.9 million pounds of penicillin was sold for livestock use

In April 2011, a study made the headlines when it revealed that Staph Aureus bacteria were found in 47% of the meat samples taken across 5 major American states and cities: Flag Staff, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Chicago and Fort Lauderdale. Around 52% of the contaminated meat samples carried strains of MRSA.

This common use of antibiotics in the farming industry has further contributed to drug-resistance. The solution to this problem is increasing sanitary conditions for food-producing animals. This will help promote healthy immune function in animals and ensure the judicious use of antibiotics.

Use and Drug Resistance

Major health bodies have testified before Congress that there is a definite link between antibiotic use in the food industry and drug resistance in humans. These health bodies include -

  • Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • US Department of Agriculture (USDA)
  • US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

Reducing Exposure and the Risks of Drug Resistance

Though the harmful effects of antibiotics on human health is well known, getting policymakers to change the rules for antibiotic use in industrial farming is not easy. In the meantime, people can reduce the risks of drug resistance by choosing to eat healthy. Vegetarianism may not be your thing, so exercise caution with the animal foods you consume. Reduce your consumption of meats if necessary, but make sure of the sources. Animal foods from small farms and hygienic facilities would be preferable.

People can also limit their need for antibiotics, by keeping their immune systems strong. Some of the steps for ensuring this include:

  • Following a balanced diet that includes all the food groups, particularly fruits and vegetables.
  • Consuming pro-biotic foods and beverages to increase levels of good bacteria in the body
  • Following a diet that is high in wholesome, natural and organic foods
  • Getting an adequate amount of exercise, sleep and rest each day, to boost immunity
  • Restricting the intake of processed foods, sugars and refined oils

This does not mean that people need to stop taking antibiotics completely, but they need to be used responsibly. If you don't know what you suffer from and whether your infection is caused by a bacterial, viral or parasitic infection, don't attempt to treat it yourself with antibiotics. If you don't know what you have or what's causing it try using natural methods and lifestyle measures to get relief until you can get to a doctor.

References:

  1. BC Herold, et al. Community-acquired methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus in children with no identified predisposing risk. JAMA. 1998;279(8):593-598.
  2. Hughes, James. Preserving the lifesaving power of antimicrobial agents. JAMA. Published online February 22, 2011.
  3. MJ Gilchrist, et al. The potential role of concentrated animal feeding operations in infectious disease epidemics and antibiotic resistance. Environ Health Perspect 2007;115:313-6

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