For something that was such a revolutionary discovery in medicine, it's remarkable to realize how much we've taken antibiotic drugs for granted. For many of us under a certain age, we've only lived in the "antibiotic era", but according to Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, an associate director at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Antibiotics, we're now living in the post-antibiotic era.
In an interview for FRONTLINE's "Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria" report, Dr. Srinivasan spoke about the ways our overuse of antibiotic drugs in both medicine and factory farming has led to the evolution of new antibiotic-resistant super bugs and created a medical crisis not seen in fifty years.
The more you use an antibiotic, the more you expose a bacteria to an antibiotic, the greater the likelihood that resistance to that antibiotic is going to develop. So the more antibiotics we put into people, we put into the environment, we put into livestock, the more opportunities we create for these bacteria to become resistant. …We also know that we’ve greatly overused antibiotics and in overusing these antibiotics, we have set ourselves up for the scenario that we find ourselves in now, where we’re running out of antibiotics.
We are quickly running out of therapies to treat some of these infections that previously had been eminently treatable. There are bacteria that we encounter, particularly in health-care settings, that are resistant to nearly all — or, in some cases, all — the antibiotics that we have available to us, and we are thus entering an era that people have talked about for a long time.
For a long time, there have been newspaper stories and covers of magazines that talked about “The end of antibiotics, question mark?” Well, now I would say you can change the title to “The end of antibiotics, period.”
We’re here. We’re in the post-antibiotic era. There are patients for whom we have no therapy, and we are literally in a position of having a patient in a bed who has an infection, something that five years ago even we could have treated, but now we can’t. …
The entire interview is very long, but also fascinating, so do read it all. But of particular interest to TreeHuggers is the section on their use on animals in factory farming:
Q: But the agriculture sector is different, because antibiotics have been used there for a long time with an eye toward improving the growth of the animals, really for food purposes, to make them bigger and fatter with less food. Does that concern you as a use?
Certainly the CDC believes quite firmly, and I think there are a number of veterinary experts here and in other places who agree with the stance that we should never be using antibiotics in agriculture or in people for any other purpose than to treat infections.
Using antibiotics to promote growth in animals is not a good use of antibiotics. It’s not careful use of this really delicate and invaluable resource. …
Because of their unique nature, Dr. Srinivasan explains how the misuse of antibiotic drugs puts everyone at risk, whether you eat meat from factory farms or not.
They’re a shared resource. Antibiotics are different than any other drug that we have.
If I overprescribe a drug to treat high blood pressure, if I give it to too many patients, it’s a problem for those patients and for the people who are paying for those patients to get the drug, but it doesn’t create any problems for other patients.
If I give my patients too many antibiotics — say I am in a hospital, working in a ward, and I create resistant organisms in my patients, those organisms can then be spread to other patients on the ward. My patients can leave the hospital and take those organisms to other hospitals. So I as one individual, with my prescribing pen in one hospital, can create a problem for a very large group of individuals who I’ve never even met. …
They’re in a way a public resource, so we have I think a responsibility … to steward that resource effectively, much like we do natural resources.
There were a lot of people who have said that we really should think about antibiotics the way we think about the environment. We all share the air we breathe. If I pollute the air, it has a negative impact on you, just like antibiotics. If I misuse antibiotics, it can have a negative impact on you.
Resistance to antibiotics now kills more people than AIDS. The CDC recently published this infographic showing how factory farms help create antibiotic resistance.
This is another example of the importance of recognizing our interconnectedness. Whether through littering or polluting or using toxic chemicals in our homes or on our lawns or crops or using these antibiotic drugs in ourselves or animals, being reminded of how our actions affect others can go a long way to helping us make wiser decisions both for ourselves and for our shared society.