The golden era of useful antibiotics may be coming to an end, due in large part to the overuse of antibiotics in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). CAFOs, otherwise known as “factory farms,” are all about raising farm animals faster, bigger, cheaper. To sustain their unnaturally concentrated and large populations of livestock, CAFOs rely heavily on antibiotics.
In fact, recent studies have shown that up to 70% of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. go to our farm animals.
Now, the newest research out of China reveals that the overuse of subtherapeutic antibiotics as growth-promotants on CAFOs is creating antibiotic resistant superbugs — strains of bacteria that do not respond to antibiotic treatment.
What’s so bad about antibiotic resistant bacteria?
This article at NPR put it quite simply,
According to the study, manure from pig farms doesn’t just contain antibiotic residues. It also carries high concentrations of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. This increases the risk that antibiotic resistance will move into bacteria that infect humans, and the resulting diseases will be more difficult to treat.
And this TIME magazine article elaborates:
Researchers counted 149 unique antibiotic-resistant genes, some at levels 192 to 28,000 times higher than control samples. Since the manure is often sold as fertilizer or washes downstream into rivers, those antibiotic-resistant genes can spread to other forms of bacteria, decreasing the overall effectiveness of the drugs in human beings.
In other words, these antibiotic resistant bacteria may easily spread into the bacteria that infect humans. I believe such spread is inevitable, and that we are looking at a watershed moment in history — a moment that will mark the change between when antibiotics were useful and when they were worthless.
Just how likely is the spread of antibiotic bacteria?
In an article in Wired magazine, James Tiedje (one of the study’s authors) said this:
It is a question of probability. The larger the concentration of antibiotic resistance genes, and the more they are distributed in the environment, the more there is an increase in the probability this will lead to serious problems. I am not in favor of waiting for this to happen, when we know it is going to happen at some stage; it is better to manage it up front as best we can. It is extremely difficult to find new, effective, safe antibiotics. So we have go to protect the ones we have.
I couldn’t agree more.
We need to move beyond the FDA’s “voluntary” program to reduce antibiotic usage in CAFOs and enact legislation that actually makes compliance mandatory.
Who cares? We shouldn’t be using antibiotics anyway.
While I agree that people overuse antibiotics all the time — particularly to treat minor ailments that easily resolve on their own or with more homespun remedies, I also see a lot of value in antibiotics.
Lest we forget, antibiotics have made all the difference in allowing many of us to continue living with otherwise debilitating diseases — like tetanus, syphilis, tuberculosis, and leprosy.
They also make a huge difference in wound care, allowing us to treat infections if they set into a wound so that we no longer need resort to amputations or other major surgeries.
Do we really want to return to a world where lepers need to be confined in colonies and those who contract tetanus have no alternative other than a debilitating life-long condition or horrible death?
Do I think we overuse antibiotic treatment? Yes.
Do I wish that people would turn to more natural remedies for things like ear infections, sinus infections, or even strep throat? Yes.
But do I want to see the end of antibiotics? Heck no.
What can you do?
First, it is ever more imperative that you stop financially supporting CAFOs. Buy pasture-raised or organic meats from local farmers who have gone to great lengths to reduce the need for antibiotic treatments of animals. Not only are these animals raised in a healthier living environment, they are also only treated with antibiotics when necessary.
Second, use your judgment when treating yourself or your family. Ask yourself if antibiotics are really necessary. In our own case, my family hasn’t resorted to antibiotic use in 7 years. That was when my husband got pneumonia because of the increased stress of his work environment. My own three children (ages 8, 5, and 2) have never once had a course of antibiotics, and I haven’t been on them in two decades!
Third, call your U.S. Representative and tell them to support PAMTA (H.R. 965 — the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2011). The bill has been introduced into congress twice now, and stalls out in committee each time. Yet if enough of us badgered our representatives about it, we may actually see it gain momentum.
(photo by USDAgov)