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The Threat of Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotics – the holy grail of modern medicine, the only cure for many bacterial diseases, and one of the most important discoveries of mankind in the 20th century.

Ever since the discovery of penicillin in the 1940s, scientists have developed more than 150 types of antibiotics of different strains and strengths, working towards making death by common infectious diseases a thing of the past. Antibiotics quickly became the second most commonly used class of drugs, just after pain-relievers. Because of antibiotics’ potential and power, a lot of people think of this “miracle drug” as a one-shot-cure-all.

In reality, the drug is far from magical, and the misuse of antibiotics is becoming problematic. When you don’t take the full dose prescribed by the doctor for your ear infection, or when you take antibiotics for something non-bacterial related, like a cold or the flu, you are promoting antibiotic resistance. The bacteria in your body, when surviving the bout of treatment, can mutate and pass on their genes to create super-bacteria that are immune to common antimicrobial drugs.  The European Food Safety Authority estimated that every year, 25,000 people die as a direct result of antimicrobial resistance, and the issue causes a 1.5 billion euro loss annually in the EU alone.infographic-public

Public-health officials are now naming antibiotic resistance as one of the leading threats of our time, but this is hardly any news. Most adults know that they need to be responsible when it comes to the use of antibiotics (as well as all other drugs on the market). The dark side of the story is the fact that most people are consuming antibiotics every day, promoting resistance, and yet they have no clue. In accordance with the vision of the World Antibiotic Awareness Week, let’s uncover this puzzling story so that we all can make better, more informed choices in the future.

So, where do we get the necessary antibiotics? In the food that we eat, day in and day out. Animals, just like humans, carry a lot of bacteria in their intestine, many of which are enormously beneficial and crucial for the well-being of the hosts. However, the use (or misuse) of antibiotics in animals can lead to the same detrimental effect observed in humans. But while most humans might know better than to take antibiotics on a daily basis, animals do not; they ingest anything their owners provide. Consequently, because the practice of treating farm animals with antibiotics is widespread, the food that we eat everyday contains a large amount of the same drugs that we were told not to abuse.

The reasons for giving antibiotics to animals are plenty. Livestock are usually raised in a cramped space, which is ideal for the growth of harmful bacteria and the quick spread of disease. To keep their livestock relatively healthy, farmers frequently administer doses of antibiotics to treat and prevent infectious diseases, ultimately keeping the cost down by reducing the amount of sick and dead animals. The drug also promotes animal growth, which is crucial in the pay-per-pound meat industry. In the dairy industry, cows are continuously impregnated and milked, and therefore are treated with drugs to prevent breast infection. infographics-how-it-spreads

When animals are given antibiotics, the drug eliminates most bacteria (good and bad), only leaving behind the strongest and most malignant of all – an example of survival of the fittest.  These bacteria contain the resistant gene, and will multiply, spreading the super-bacteria to other nearby hosts, including the humans who dine on them. Consumer Reports did a test in recent years, which revealed that more than ⅔ of their chicken samples were contaminated with Salmonella and/or Campylobacter, and more than 60% of those were resistant to one or more antibiotics. 

These bacteria make their way to human hosts through many different pathways besides ingestion. Direct contact with raw meat might be enough for contraction, as well as contact with contaminated surfaces used to prep the food. Not only meat, but milk and eggs are also affected by the antibacterial strains. Sadly, it doesn’t stop there. Contaminated animal manure used to fertilize crops can spread the germs to vegetables and water sources. Through these media, the super-bugs not only multiply, but can also exchange their resistant genetic material with other bacteria, which creates even more complications. 

infographics-agricultureThe irresponsible use of antibiotic in farming is damaging, and health officials have backed this claim. In 2010, the two big public health agencies, the US Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the US Department of Agriculture, all testified before Congress regarding the matter. According to their testimonies, there is indeed a link between the use of antibiotics in meat production and the resistance of the drugs in people.

It is, therefore, important to understand that even with our effort to use antibiotics prudently, it might not be enough to stop the threat of antibiotic resistance; the pandemic cannot be treated in isolation. Rather, a concerted effort in all three sectors – hospital, household, and agriculture setting – is needed in to slow down the rate of bacteria’s resistance. 

Even though we cannot do much but to count on legislators to regulate the use of antibiotics in raising farm animals, there are certain things we can do to reduce the chance of getting infected with contaminants from food. Below is advice from the CDC on how to lessen the chance of infection with resistant bacteria from foods:

  • Follow FoodSafety.gov’s Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill guidelines.
  • Cook meat, poultry, and eggs to a safe minimum internal temperature.
  • Prevent animal products from contaminating other foods by washing your hands, utensils, and kitchen surfaces during meal preparation.
  • Don’t drink raw milk.
  • Wash your hands after contact with stool, animals, or animal environments.
  • Review CDC’s Traveler’s Health recommendations when preparing to travel to a foreign country.

Or, you can choose to reduce the amount of meat consumed in your meals. After all, less meat, less problems, right?

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