Officially begin worrying now, North Americans. Something has entered your food supply that threatens true calamity — and there’s not much you can do about it.
You wouldn’t think a Chinese grocery store in Saskatoon, Canada, would be the epicenter triggering so much concern within the medical community, but that’s how it happened. The problem was squid. Well, not the squid so much as what researchers found hiding inside it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced earlier this month that imported squid, most likely from South Korea, contained a bacterium that is resistant to carbapenems — the antibiotics of last resort.
“Carbapenems are a type of antibiotic, and carbapenemases are enzymes that some organisms can produce to render these antibiotics ineffective,” said the CDC in a bulletin released on June 11. “Carbapenem-resistant organisms have been found in the environment and in animals used for food; but in the United States and Canada, they had not been found in food itself—until now.”
Here’s the CDC footstomper: “This finding expands the list of those at risk for carbapenem-resistant infections from a select group of people to the general public.”
If you’re hit with a carbapenem-resistant infection, that means there‘s no antibiotic left that can help you. Yikes.
How is this Possible?
Maryn McKenna of Wired’s Superbug blog explained the concern well:
The issue isn’t that the bacterium is going to cause a foodborne illness immediately; the bacteria carrying this gene was not a disease-causing variety. Rather, the concern is that the DNA conferring this resistance passes from this bacterium into the vast colony of diverse bacteria that live in your gut for your entire life, becoming incorporated into your gut flora and posing a risk of drug-resistant illness at some future point when the balance of your immune system slips.
So if you eat this squid, or any other affected food, you won’t be clutching your stomach in distress an hour from now. Rather, what you’ve unknowingly done is introduce the worst type of antibiotic-resistant bacteria into your system. It won’t ride back out the next time you go to the bathroom. Rather, it will take up residence inside you, quietly infusing itself into the makeup of all the other bacteria teeming in your gut.
Someday, when you get sick and your immune system is a bit off, infection can take hold. With no antibiotic that works against carbapenem-resistant infections, you could be in serious trouble.
We Found This Problem Only Because We Just Started to Look For It
The World Health Organization (WHO) calls the coming antibiotic resistance crisis a problem that will eclipse the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
“A post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century,” wrote Dr. Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Security, in the foreword to an April 2014 WHO report.
Industrialized factory farms keep great numbers of animals crammed together, often in incredibly dirty conditions. Rather than change this way of doing business, factory farms instead try to combat inevitable animal illness by routinely giving antibiotics to cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys. They even give smaller doses to spur greater growth.
One of the innumerable problems with this scenario is that we eat those animals. When we do, we also eat those antibiotics.
Historically, researchers explored food supply antimicrobial drug resistance only within “major agricultural products,” specifically poultry, beef and pork. Because our diets are now more diverse and our foods come from everywhere, the CDC decided to look more broadly at “niche-market meat products, including imported foods” to see what could be learned. That’s how they came to test that squid in Saskatoon back in January 2014.
What if you go vegetarian or vegan? Can you minimize your risk by not eating meat? Not really, says Madeline Drexler, author of Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections:
Poultry and livestock aren’t the only creatures being dosed with drugs. Salmon, catfish, and trout on domestic fish farms get antibacterial drugs in the water. Honeybees get antibiotics in their hives. And each year, an estimated 300,000 pounds of antibiotic pesticides drift down on fruit trees and other crops to control or prevent bacterial infections such as fire blight.
Yes, antibiotics are everywhere and we’re eating them. The CDC calls “[t]he global emergence of carbapenemase-producing organisms … a public health emergency.”
Do Scientists See a Ray of Hope?
If there’s any good news here, it’s this: some scientists believe they may have discovered the key to turning off bacteria’s ability to resist antibiotics.
“This is really important because drug-resistant bacteria is a global health problem,” said Professor Changjiang Dong of the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School. “Many bacteria build up an outer defense which is important for their survival and drug resistance. We have found a way to stop that happening.”
Much more work is necessary if we hope to find our way out of this trap we’ve built for ourselves. Let’s hope our world governments heed the urgent call of researchers who need sufficient funding. Many lives hang in the balance.
Photo credit (all images): Thinkstock