By Blair Lewis, Yoga+
Hailed as “miracle drugs” when they came into widespread use in 1941, antibiotics quickly became a panacea. Because both doctors and patients wanted quick cures, we have been throwing antibiotics at a host of ailments for the past half-century, whether they were required or not. That was a mistake.
That mistake was compounded by failing to confine the use of antibiotics to the medical community. Cattle and other livestock producers began adding antibiotics into the daily feed mix because animals on antibiotics grow faster on less feed, and because these drugs help control the bacterial infections that are the consequence of crowded feed lots. Poultry feed is laced with antibiotics and commercially raised fish get their share too. This over-consumption of antibiotics by both humans and animals gave bacteria every opportunity to develop antibiotic-resistant strains, and they did.
When bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, many die but a few mutate, passing on their resistance to their hoards of offspring. One lone mutant bacterium can leave more than 16 million offspring in a 24-hour period, so resistance spreads like wildfire. These resistant strains can develop in animals as well as people. Resistant strains in animals are passed on to humans if the animal’s flesh is raw or undercooked. To further complicate matters, drug resistance can jump from one strain to another, as when the bacterium that causes cholera picked up a resistance to tetracycline from the E. coli bacterium, which populates the large intestines of healthy people.
Antibiotic resistance is spreading rapidly. Until recently, we were congratulating ourselves on having nearly obliterated tuberculosis in the Western world. But as resistance to antibiotics has spread in the past decade, TB has come back with a vengeance. There are only a half dozen drugs that are effective against TB, and the standard treatment requires two drugs (four if the patient’s immune system is compromised). Resistance to one of these drugs, Isoniazid, is already common. TB is only one of the better known examples — there are dozens more.
Clearly we’ve got to find an alternative to antibiotics. But where does the solution lie? And what can we do in the meantime to curb the spread of drug-resistant microbes?