The World’s Next Big Problem?


The world has some big problems. We have shown we aren’t very adept at scrambling to deal with crises once we’ve reached the point of no return (see global warming), so maybe we should get a head start on the next disaster?

I recently read an interview of a doctor that says we’ve reached the end of antibiotics. There are bacteria that are resistant to all antibiotics known to man. This is bad.

Every time bacteria is exposed to an antibiotic, there is the chance that it will become resistant to it. When you have another antibiotic to try (there are thousands), this isn’t horrible, just try the next one. But we’ve now reached the end of the line where some “super-bugs” have shown resistance to every antibiotic humans have discovered.

The reason I got to thinking about this is the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers locker room was cleaned by a hazmat crew after their game this week. Why? Several of their players have had MRSA, which is a highly resistant bacteria, and they don’t want it spreading to anyone else.

Typically this antibiotics problem is limited to hospitals. Someone gets a nasty wound and bacteria climbs on in. In the last 50 years with antibiotics, people rarely die from this. We could simply kill the bacteria with antibiotics. This opened up a world of new possibilities, everything from organ transplants, chemotherapy, and more. Basically any treatment that weakens your immune system is less of a concern when have antibiotics to treat infections.

Now we are seeing bacteria resistant to all antibiotics known to man. We are also seeing these nasty bacteria away from hospitals. (Apparently these bacteria are football fans just like the rest of us. They probably have a fantasy team that benefited by keeping a few Buccaneers players out of games.) But we are still in the early stages, no need to get all worked up yet. But what happens when there are more-and-more super-bugs out there? What happens when going to the hospital is too dangerous? Should we start thinking about this now?

Let’s turn to solving the problem. First, we need to slow down the creation of these super-bacteria by using less antibiotics. In the meantime, we also need to create some new antibiotics we can use.

Creating new antibiotics

According to the interview linked above, the low hanging fruits have been discovered. It has become more difficult and expensive to discover new antibiotics. It doesn’t make sense financially for the drug companies to spend time working on this. Antibiotics sales bring in a pittance and there is too much money to be made by continuously selling you a drug that lowers your blood pressure. We need to fix these incentives or ramp up government funded efforts.

Using less antibiotics

We need to seriously cut back on antibiotic use. Less preventative use as well as saving certain strains for our last resort. I don’t know much about how they are used in humans, but the obvious place to cut back is for factory farmed animals. 30 millions pounds of antibiotics are used on US animals each year, compared to 8 million pounds for humans. Supply and demand at its worst – with so many carnivores demanding meat, this is one of the consequences. Here’s a short excerpt from the interview:

I’d like to ask you about the use of antibiotics for farm animals. I know a large share of the antibiotics produced in this country is used in agriculture. Do you see problems there? Is that generating resistance as well as the use for humans?

We know that the use of antibiotics in any setting, and especially the overuse of antibiotics in any setting, is an issue that will generate resistance, that will lead to problems of resistance. That applies as much for human use as it does for animal use.

Do you think that if they’re used for animals, there’s actually a pathway to resistance that is a threat to human health?

I think there is. There have been a number of studies that show that when you give antibiotics to animals, especially to animals that we then eat, there are antibiotics that get into their systems that can develop resistance, and then when we eat the food, we can be exposed to those resistant organisms.

We also know that if antibiotics are used in animal feed that they can end up in animal waste, so we can end up with antibiotics in our water supplies, and it’s that type of low-level presence of antibiotics that can also lead to issues with resistance.

Do you think we have enough data to know what’s happening with the antibiotics used on the farm?

I think we know enough to say that we need to be doing a better job of improving appropriate use of antibiotics in all sectors, humans and animals.

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.

Check out How Using Antibiotics In Animal Feed Creates Superbugs for some more deets.

It’s amazing how I tie everything back to “you should be a vegetarian”. It reminds me of the standup Jerry Seinfeld does in The Shower Head:

“Yeah, I got some family backstage. Course my family’s nuts; they’re crazy. Yep. My uncle Leo, I had lunch with him the other day, he’s one of these guys that anything goes wrong in life, he blames it on anti-Semitism. You know what I mean, the spaghetti’s not al dente? Cook’s an anti-Semite. Loses a bet on a horse. Secretariat? Anti-Semitic. Doesn’t get a good seat at the temple. Rabbi? Anti-Semite.”

Hopefully mine’s not quite as irrational …

One thought on “The World’s Next Big Problem?

  1. Colleen says:

    Great to hear from you again! I just discussed this very subject with some friends this week. The idea of these super-bugs without effective antibiotics is quite alarming. I can see why you have made your choice to be a vegetarian. Although the pesticides on plant life seems to be in the news quite a bit too. We trust our government agencies and doctors will keep us informed, but as you pointed out, only after disaster strikes do we take action. Thanks for the info.!

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