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The Other Superbug

super e-coliSuperbug is such a great word, isn’t it? Fun and frightening! At Main Street Project, “superbug” is usually a reference to the pesticide-resistant insects that keep the industrial food industry escalating the potency of their pesticides. The pattern is the same in the undeniable war between bacteria and antibiotics, and industrial food is a major player on that front as well. There are good reasons why we don’t use antibiotics at MSP.

Here’s the summary in capsule form: widespread use of antibiotics has led to more, stronger, “bad” (if you’re pro-human) bacteria, making antibiotics increasingly ineffective.

Antibiotics have worked remarkably well for tens of years, saving countless lives; but bacteria have been around for millions of years and they are amazingly good at adaptation. A bacterium can randomly mutate into a Superbug that is resistant to, say, amoxicillin without any help from us, but we’re strengthening them with the same combo of impatience and ingenuity that’s propelled some of our greatest discoveries.

  1. Overprescribing: Sure, we can blame doctors, but doctors, like bacteria, do not live in a vacuum: they respond to their ecosystem. You feel cheated if you walk into a doctor’s office feeling crappy and walk out without an instant solution. If the doctor is cautious and waits for lab results and in the meantime you die from a bacterial infection, she’ll be sued. Cut to 2016, when antibiotics are prescribed in this country nearly twice as much as they should be.
  2. Drugging animals: In the US, farm animals gobble up 70% of the antibiotics useful to people. When you eat meat or eggs or dairy from a conventional source, you’re getting a free dose of drugs that kill weak and beneficial bacteria while the mighty remainder spread to anything that your body and its excretions make contact with. A scientific report out of the UK last month made reducing antibiotic use in farm animals its #3 recommendation for fighting the drug-resistance apocalypse.
    • Why drug animals? Because they live in dangerously cramped conditions, and/or their feed that doesn’t work with their digestive system, all priming them for infection. They’re fed cheap antibiotics both preemptively and therapeutically.
    • Can’t they regulate this stuff? Well, the FDA is also a product of its ecosystem. It tried to pass regulations when evidence of superbacteria first started surfacing in the early seventies, but has been blocked ever since by congressional supporters of the industrial agriculture system. Currently, they have in place a toothless recommendation that antibiotics not be prescribed for reasons like increasing growth.
    • You mean making chickens fatter? And the rest of the animals, too: an unlucky experiment in the 1950s demonstrated that giving them antibiotics increased their weight. Profits shone like a pot of gold, and the industry was forever changed.
    • Wait, I’m an animal… Yes, some scientists believe that the dramatic increase in obesity in the last few decades may be, in part, a side effect of massive active and passive antibiotic consumption.

Why haven’t we fixed this? There’s always the profit driver, not only from the drug companies, but the agribusiness that benefit from maximizing animals per ft2. There are also numerous and widespread misconceptions about antibiotics that encourage harmful behavior. Allow me:

  1. No, it doesn’t matter how sick you are; antibiotics only kill bacteria. Viruses (colds, flus) are utterly unaffected by antibiotics.
  2. Sorry, but if you need the antibiotics in the first place (50% chance!), you really do need to take them all. The weak bacteria are the first to go down in battle. If you only take the drug long enough to kill those, the strong survive, propagate, and proliferate.
  3. Yes, avoiding antibiotics when you don’t need them helps reduce the amount of superbugs in the world, but it does nothing to defend you against the coming onslaught. If I get hit by a superbug that antibiotics can’t kill, it doesn’t matter whether I’ve ever ingested antibiotics. It is the bugs in the everywhere that will get you, not a lack of bug resistance in your own self.
  4. Technology is not a panacea. We’ve already exhausted the easiest ways to kill bacteria, so inventing new drugs will be increasingly difficult; and the most powerful antibiotics are reserved for life-threatening cases for a reason. Bacteria outnumber human cells in our body 10 to 1, so nuking them can have a noteworthy negative impact.
  5. Co-evolution, baby! Bacteria, as I have said, are freaky masters of adaptation. Some bacteria can double in population every 20 minutes! And they don’t even have to reproduce to pass on their super mutant strong DNA – they can steal it from a dead bacterium, or transmit it through contact. Contact!

Superbugs are making up a greater and greater percentage of the bacteria that come after us, making it more likely we’ll end up with an unkillable infection from something as common as a scraped knee. (Welcome Back, Amputation!) If we keep repeating these mistakes, 10 million people per year will be dying from antibiotic-resistant infections by 2050.

But seriously, isn’t bacteria awesome?

 

 

 

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