A dangerous phenomenon is posing a great threat to humanity. While the public rallies behind issues like nuclear proliferation and climate change, the issue of antibiotic resistance seems to be getting overlooked.
As per the Chief Medical Advisor of the UK, Professor Dame Sally Davies, up to ten million individuals can perish every year due to antibiotic resistance by 2050 if action continues to be delayed. This would exceed the death tolls of cancer and diabetes.
It is common knowledge that antibiotics are a pillar of medicine and commonly employed when an individual is diagnosed with a bacterial infection. However, most people do not realize that antibiotics are only effective in eradicating germs when used in careful moderation.
A relatively simple model can be used to show how bacteria gain resistance. In a colony of pathogenic bacteria, a majority of them are vulnerable to antibiotics. However, some mutant bacteria have the ability to withstand antibiotic exposure. This pre-existing variation enables the few resistant bacteria to survive when an antibiotic is used.
Dr. Gareth Russell, an Associate Professor and the Chair of the Biological Sciences Department at NJIT, provides an even more alarming context for this resistance dynamic: “bacteria are capable of horizontal gene transfer and can transfer resistance genes from the environment to other bacteria.” This means that they can spread resistance to other pathogens quite easily.
A study conducted at the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control confirms the seriousness of antimicrobial resistance. The study aimed to evaluate the effects of antibiotic administration on the healthy bacteria that inhabit our intestines and whether it contributes to the formation of resistant microbes.
The article further explains that “C. difficile [a common bacterium] is commonly isolated in low numbers from healthy individuals, but may increase in number as a consequence of antibiotic-induced disturbances, in particular following suppression of the normal beneficial members of the anaerobic microbiota.”
This finding reveals that antibiotics disturb the healthy bacteria which play a vital role in our digestive systems, resulting in the emergence of resistant C. difficile strains and gastrointestinal issues. The study also emphasized the long-term effects of clindamycin—a common antibiotic—usage as a cause of changes to the framework of healthy bacteria, creating the perfect conditions for resistant bacteria.
This alarming phenomenon continues to plague emergency rooms as people develop aggressive infections that are unresponsive to the strongest antibiotics available. Consequently, physicians run out of treatment options and people die from massive infections.
Knowing this information, it is easy to speculate as to who or what action is enabling colonies of bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics. One answer resides in the world of animal farming. In fact, 70% of the world’s cache of antibiotics is utilized by farmers who want to keep their livestock healthy and viable. The biggest culprits are fish and cow farmers, who inundate their animals with excessive amounts of antibiotics prior to slaughtering and selling them.
Resistant bacteria survive on the animal meat, causing illnesses in consumers. Even more alarming, bacteria in the surrounding environment of the livestock receive the groundworks for resistance. Dr. Russell reveals, “With animal feed in particular, the antibiotics are in liquid form. Some is absorbed, but a majority is excreted out the other end, breeding antibiotic resistance in environmental bacteria.”
We can take a critical step in the right direction by slowing the rate at which animal farmers use antibiotics for their livestock. Doing so minimizes risk for bacteria to evolve and acquire defense mechanisms against our antibiotics. The precedent for such reform has already been set by animal farmers in the UK, as reflected by a 40% reduction of antibiotic usage in the animal sector and approximately 91% reduction of usage on chickens.
As our population continues to rapidly expand, the demand for animal meat will reach unforeseen heights. If change is not integrated, large numbers of people will die from newer and more resistant infections.
Antibiotics are gifts to society, however, irresponsible usage can pose catastrophic repercussions on a global scale and spread unstoppable bacteria. If this continues, our gift will quickly transform into a curse as we reach the verge of a deadly pandemic and a regression to pre-antibiotic times in medicine.