Resistant Killer Bugs: An Epic Medical Catastrophe Looms

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We at FriendsEat, along with scores of online publications, public health experts, and consumer advocacy groups, have discussed for years the imminent danger associated with the continued abusive use of antibiotics in industrial farming.

Healthy cattle and poultry are routinely injected with antibiotics whether they need them or not. Large corporate U.S farms feed antibiotics to pigs, chickens, and cows to stimulate growth and save on feed costs. In a nation that used a total of 35 million pounds of antibiotics in 2009, 70 percent — 28 million pounds — were used on U.S. animals alone.

Many doctors and health activist have known for decades that the explosion of human drug-resistant infections that kill tens of thousands are linked to the massively abusive use of antibiotics that are needlessly given to animals. The antibiotic-resistant staph infection known as MRSA kills more Americans than AIDS, and is widespread in the U.S. pig herd.

Federal studies report finding drug-resistant bacteria in U.S. meat on a regular basis. Six years ago, the World Health Organization released a report linking resistant and killer bacteria to the regular and unnecessary use of antibiotics in industrial farming, and the Europeans have banned the use of antibiotics in livestock except to treat illness.

Pandemic/Spread

DER SPIEGEL’s recent article “Antibiotics Prove Powerless as Super-Germs Spread” covers the alarming speed and chilling increase in the number of highly resistant and deadly bacteria currently spreading around the world.

One particular bacterium that has become a serious health threat in the United States and Germany is referred to as community-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or ca-MRSA.

DER SPIEGEL warns that ca-MRSA is “resistance to almost all common antibiotics, which complicates treatment. And, in contrast to the highly drug-resistant hospital-acquired MRSA (ha-MRSA) strains, which primarily affect the elderly and people in hospitals and nursing homes, ca-MRSA affects healthy young people.”

The British medical journal the Lancet warns that the drug-resistant bacteria could spark a “pandemic” and as DER SPIEGEL points out, ha-MRSA and ca-MRSA are only two strains from an entire arsenal of pathogens that are now resistant to almost all available antibiotics, threatening to render penicillin, “one of the most powerful miracle weapons ever produced by modern medicine, ineffective.”

In Germany, the dangerous pathogens have now become ubiquitous, and have been detected on Germany’s high-speed ICE trains; more than 10 percent of the residents of German retirement homes have been colonized by MRSA bacteria.

A recent analysis of chicken meat conducted by the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth in Germany found multidrug-resistant bacteria on more than half of the chicken parts purchased in supermarkets. The pathogens have also been found on beef, pork and vegetables.

In healthy individuals their immune systems can keep the pathogens under control. But the real danger from these pathogens manifest when an individual becomes seriously ill.

“Take, for example, a person who is having surgery and requires artificial respiration and receives a venous or urinary catheter,” explains Petra Gastmeier, director of the Institute of Hygiene and Environmental Medicine at Berlin’s Charité Hospital.

“In such a case, the resistant intestinal bacteria can enter the lungs, the bloodstream and the bladder resulting in urinary tract infections, pneumonia or sepsis, which are increasingly only treatable with so-called reserve antibiotics — drugs for emergencies that should only be administered when common antibiotics are no longer effective.”

But DER SPIEGEL notes there are already some pathogens that not even the drugs of last resort in the medical arsenal can combat.

In India, an estimated 100 to 200 million people are already carriers of these killer bacteria, and the only effective antibiotic left is a drug that’s no longer used because of its potentially fatal side effects. People who become seriously infected with these types of pathogens die of urinary tract infections, wound infections or pneumonia.

The killer bugs have also reached England, infecting several hundred people. Israel also experienced a nationwide outbreak a few years ago where an extremely dangerous bacterium affected about 1,300 people that killed 40 percent of infected patients. DER SPIEGEL claims even today, the same bacterium still sickens some 300 people a year.

Medical Catastrophe Looms in Post Antibiotic Era

“We are moving toward a post-antibiotic era,” predicts Yehuda Carmeli of the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center. “But it won’t happen on one day or at the same time in every part of the world. And that’s the tragedy, because this means that it is not perceived as a serious problem.”

According to DER SPIEGEL, the World Health Organization recently warned against an impending medical catastrophe, and in The Lancet, leading healthcare experts published an urgent appeal: “We have watched too passively as the treasury of drugs that has served us well has been stripped of its value. We urge our colleagues worldwide to take responsibility for the protection of this precious resource. There is no longer time for silence and complacency.”

DER SPIEGEL warns that the carelessness with which doctors and farmers are jeopardizing the effectiveness of one of the most important groups of drugs borders on lunacy.

“Some 900 metric tons of antibiotics are administered to livestock each year in Germany alone. Instead of treating only those animals that are truly sick, farmers routinely feed the medications to all of their animals. Likewise, some 300 metric tons of antibiotics are used to treat humans each year, far too often for those merely suffering from a common cold.”

In the United States, approximately 80 percent of antibiotic drugs sold are regularly used as an insurance policy to prevent animals from becoming sick, and used on food animals in factory farms to promote faster animal growth.

Warnings Ignored by FDA and Factory Farms

The FDA’s recent decision to place a partial ban on cephalosporins, a group of broad spectrum, semi-synthetic beta-lactam antibiotics, similar to penicillin, makes up just a fraction of 1 percent of total antibiotic use in livestock — and only a fraction of these drugs are used in ways that would be prohibited if the FDA rule goes into effect as planned this April.

Additionally, public health advocates say the FDA’s proposed partial ban on cephalosporins would do little to combat the overall rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

The powerful corporate-owned factory farming industry continues to regularly dismiss stern warnings — from multiple sources — about the abuse and overuse of antibiotics in farm animals.

Members of the food animal industry continue to refute the need for antibiotic regulation. “The impression out there of our use of antibiotics at low levels is pretty overstated,” said Michael Apley, a professor at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“There is no conclusive scientific evidence indicating the judicious use of antibiotics in cattle leads to antimicrobial resistance in humans,” Mary Geiger, spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a statement.

And yet in a letter to Congress, CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden wrote that there is “compelling evidence of a clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.”

Superbugs Found in Antarctic Seawater

New Scientists reports bacteria that can resist nearly all antibiotics have been found in Antarctic seawater. “Björn Olsen of Uppsala University in Sweden and colleagues took seawater samples between 10 and 300 metres away from Chile’s Antarctic research stations, Bernardo O’Higgins, Arturo Prat and Fildes Bay. A quarter of the samples of Escherichia coli bacteria carried genes that made an enzyme called ESBL, which can destroy penicillin, cephalosporins and related antibiotics.”

No New Antibiotics On Horizon

DER SPIEGEL advises that only four pharmaceutical companies worldwide are still working on developing new antibiotic agents. “Antibiotics have a serious problem,” says Wolfgang Wohlleben of the Institute of Microbiology at the University of Tübingen, in southwestern Germany: “They actually work.”

In other words, Big Pharma isn’t working on developing new antibiotic agents because there’s no money to be made. As DER SPIEGEL suggests, contrast drugs that can heal an infection within a few hours or days, with drugs patients take for the rest of their lives to fight high blood pressure or diabetes — those drugs translate into steady, reliable profits for pharmaceutical companies.

The unabated spread of these drug resistant killer bugs is nothing short of a modern medical nightmare. Antibiotics gained widespread use in the late 1950′s, and we have since taken the 24 hour miracle these drugs perform on deadly infections wholly for granted.

Medicine is about to regress 60 years all because federal agencies like the FDA refuse to act, allowing unregulated corporate food industry behemoths to insist with cavalier indifference that there is no evidence linking the regular use of antibiotics in poultry, pork and beef to antibiotic resistance in humans. “There is no longer time for silence and complacency.”

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper
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