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Antibiotic Resistance, Revisited

Published: September 14, 2011

One hates to sound like a bit of a broken record, but the matter of supergerms needs a re-visit and a fine place to go is the recent Discover special issue on evolution. The article titled “The Rise of the Killer Mutants” goes into greater detail than we have here on the topic of antibiotic misuse as it relates to livestock.

The article by Jessica Snyder Sachs outlines how unnaturally high levels of antibiotic resistance genes have been found in soil sediments where rivers come into contact with farm runoff and/or municipal waste-water effluent. This discovery is kind of a no-brainer if one keeps in mind how evolution works (which was the theme, after all, of the special issue of the magazine).

Given a situation where chemicals toxic to bacteria (antibiotics) are concentrated, as is the case at sewage treatment plants, the natural tendency is for evolution to select for resistant strains. In the case of treatment plants, the contamination problems of sludge – with its high levels of resistant bacteria – could be mitigated by drying the solid material. But this costs money. So instead, the wet material is trucked away and applied as a slurry to forests, roadsides and crop fields. What a great place to sew anti-biotic resistant bacteria, eh?

In the case of animal farms, the situation is even worse. The livestock pharmaceutical industry wants to say it still has not seen anything “definitive” to link their operations to human disease. By their own data, however, they sell over 20 million POUNDS of antibiotics to industrial farms. Most of these antibiotics are NOT used to fight disease, but to increase the animals growth rates! As a bit of back-of-the envelope math, keep in mind that one human dose of doxycycline is 100 milligrams. One ounce of such antibiotic represents almost 300 doses of drug. One pound would represent almost 5,000 doses. Multiply that by 20 million and…. well what it adds up to is a lot of antibiotic in the environment.

Were the meat industry to only use antibiotics not used in human medicine, this situation would not be so bad, as the bacteria wouldn’t develop resistance to the specific drugs we use to save lives. Unfortunately there exists no such restrictions on their use. In 2008 the FDA proposed a new rule that would limit the use of the 4th generation of cephalosporins (a class of broad spectrum antibiotics) in food-producing animals. Since these drugs are vital in fighting human infections like meningitis, this simple rule seemed sensible. Reportedly, after receiving “critical comments,” the FDA they withdrew the suggested rule (that sounds pretty gutsy, doesn’t it?) and allowed the industry to continue its nutty practices.

How hard is the pharmaceutical industry looking to find cases of human disease linked directly to antibiotic misuse? A good question, but let’s just say, it is difficult to convince somebody of something when their income depends on their NOT understanding it.

On a side note, the article was pretty definitive on antibacterial products like triclosan and triclocarban. They have been shown to promote antibiotic resistance and provide the consumer with nothing. They do not keep anything “cleaner” than regular soap and water. They should be eliminated from the market. If you are using any such products save your money.

The topic of antibiotic resistance is not going away. The money flow supports the status quo, but the costs to human health have NOT been factored in. We here at Sacramento Men’s Health will be keeping the human cost in mind as we continue to follow this dilemma.