Karela Fry

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The end of the age of antibiotics

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Recent newspaper reports about the emergence of highly drug-resistant varieties of tuberclosis in India have sensitised us to the fact that we may be nearing the age of antibiotics. An article in the Spiegel examines the reasons:

The evolution of antibiotic resistance

Community-acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or ca-MRSA, … has become a serious health threat in the United States. Doctors have already discovered it in Germany, although no deaths have been attributed to it yet in the country.

The two bacteria, [hospital acquired] ha-MRSA and ca-MRSA, are only two strains from an entire arsenal of pathogens that are now resistant to almost all available antibiotics. Less than a century after the discovery of penicillin, one of the most powerful miracle weapons ever produced by modern medicine threatens to become ineffective.

About two weeks ago, consumers were alarmed by the results of an analysis of chicken meat by the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), which found multidrug-resistant bacteria on more than half of the chicken parts purchased in supermarkets.

The dangerous bacteria have even been detected on one of Germany’s high-speed ICE trains. Likewise, more than 10 percent of the residents of German retirement homes have been colonized by MRSA bacteria. In their case, every open wound is potentially deadly. The pathogens have also been found on beef, pork and vegetables.

In fact, 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.

The exhaust gases emitted by giant feedlots for pigs and chickens could also pose a danger greater than previously thought. These meat factories blow bacteria, viruses and fungi into the air. The government of the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia has commissioned a study to determine whether feedlots are discharging multidrug-resistant bacteria, thereby endangering people in the surrounding areas.

Last year, North Rhine-Westphalia was also the first German state to systematically investigate the use of antibiotics in chicken farms. The horrifying conclusion was that more than 96 percent of all animals had received these drugs — sometimes up to eight different agents — in their short lives of only a few weeks. “That was the proof that the exception — namely, treating disease — had become the rule,” says Johannes Remmel, a Green Party member and the state’s consumer protection minister.

The director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University School of Medicine writes in the NYT that this is a problem also in the USA:

Factory farms are major contributors to the selection and transfer of drug resistance genes, which threaten human health. Animals far outnumber humans in the United States and consume a higher volume of antibiotics, particularly at subtherapeutic doses for growth promotion. Sludge and downstream waterways from farms create an environment where drug resistance can transfer to human pathogens, leading to treatment failure.

So the next time someone says that over-the-counter sales of drugs in India is the reason behind the rise of antibiotic tolerant bacteria, remind them that the total amount of antibiotics used in farms in Germany alone exceeds that sold over the counter in India.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

January 28, 2012 at 7:05 pm

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