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According to a report released recently, the overuse of antibiotics is creating drug-resistant “superbugs” that could kill 10 million people a year by as soon as 2050.
Conducted by the Interagency Coordination Group on Antimicrobial Resistance (IACG) and submitted to the United Nations about 2 weeks ago, the study found that the overuse of antimicrobial drugs is poised to cause “a global crisis” that could have a severe and lasting impact on society.
Antibiotics Are Everywhere
To clarify, antimicrobial drugs refer to both antibiotics and antifungals. These antimicrobial drugs are used with astonishing regularity – not only in humans, but also in our livestock and crops. This is a problem that transcends geography and demographics and is already causing a crisis right now.
Currently, drug-resistant infections, or “superbugs,” kill about 700,000 people every year. The most common infection is tuberculosis, which has developed resistance to most antimicrobial treatments and is responsible for around 230,000 deaths every year. And if these numbers seem astonishing, remember that they could increase by more than 1400% in the next 30 years.
Since the 1940s, following the discovery of penicillin, people have been using antimicrobials to combat many forms of bacterial infections. In fact, it’s one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world. In 2015, U.S. pharmacies dispensed nearly 270 million doses of antibiotics – enough for 5 out of every six Americans to receive antibiotics every year. The CDC reported that at least 30% of these prescriptions were unnecessary.
But antibiotics aren’t just given to patents with bacterial infections. Antimicrobials are also used liberally in plants and animals to help prevent disease and improve growth. But a 2012 review published in Public Health Reports found that the agricultural use of antibiotics is “one of the major contributors to the development of resistant organisms that result in life-threatening human infections.”
Health Risks of Antibiotic Use
Antibiotics are also damaging our immune system. With immature immune systems that are still developing, antibiotics are the most commonly prescribed drug for infants. And since over 40% of antibiotic prescriptions are intended to treat respiratory issues like sinus or ear infections, allergies, or even the common cold, about half of these prescriptions may be unnecessary. Most coughs, colds, and upper respiratory illnesses are the result of viral infections, against which antibiotics are useless.
These antimicrobial drugs also have a substantial impact on our gut bacteria, which is essential to a properly functioning immune system. Without a healthy gut, our bodies become more susceptible to a host of disease and illness. But immune issues and superbugs aren’t the only dangers posed by our overuse of antibiotics; they may also be contributing to cancer.
A study of patients in the United Kingdom found that those who had taken antibiotics were around 10% more likely to develop colorectal cancer. Another study showed that any amount of antibiotic use may increase the risk of breast cancer in women. The International Journal of Cancer published a study that demonstrated a link between antibiotic use and breast, lung, prostate, and colon cancer.
When we talk about drug-resistant bacteria, it’s important to know exactly what happens. Most antibiotics are prescribed to combat current infections or prevent future infections. It’s common for patients undergoing routine surgery to receive a course of IV antibiotics as a precaution. And the discovery of penicillin in 1928 has saved tens of millions of lives over the last 75 years.
But although these drugs can be very effective at fighting infections, overuse can quickly lead to lead to resistant superbugs. Bacterium that survives a course of antibiotics passes on its resistant properties as it replicates, resulting in resistant, more dangerous infections. So, when the infection returns, the antibiotics used to combat it are virtually useless. Most of us are blessed to live in a world where common infections are rarely ever fatal. We use antibiotics to treat a host of infectious disease without considering how catastrophic these infections would have been less than a century ago.
According to The New York Times,
The problem threatens people around the world. During the next 30 years, the United Nations experts said, 2.4 million people in Europe, North America and Australia could die from drug-resistant infections, making routine hospital procedures like knee-replacement surgery and childbirth far riskier than they are today.”
The director of the IACG, Dr. Haileyesus Getahun, sees the impending catastrophe, and says that government bodies need to act quickly and decisively to avoid the pending catastrophe. “This is a silent tsunami,” she said. “We are not seeing the political momentum we’ve seen in other public health emergencies, but if we don’t act now, antimicrobial resistance will have a disastrous impact within a generation.”
We Need to Act NOW
The report outlined a series of recommended action steps, saying with no uncertainty that,
There is no time to wait. Unless the world acts urgently, antimicrobial resistance will have disastrous impact within a generation.”
One fear is the economic impact that such a severe increase in drug-resistant bacteria could have. “The economic damage of uncontrolled antimicrobial resistance could be comparable to the shocks experienced during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis as a result of dramatically increased health care expenditures; impact on food and feed production, trade and livelihoods; and increased poverty and inequality,” the report warned.
The report uses strong language repeatedly warning that action must be taken immediately to reduce antibiotic use wherever possible and implement a series of changes to minimize the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. If not, we could begin seeing disastrous results.
To give a bit of perspective, here are a few numbers that may surprise you.
- According to the World Health Organization, approximately 520,000 people are murdered every year.
- Almost 1.25 million people die in automobile accidents every year globally.
- According to the National Cancer Institute, there were 8.2 million cancer-related deaths worldwide in 2012.
- About 5.8 million people die from a stroke each year. Strokes are the third most common cause of death in the U.S.
And yet, if we continue to hand out antibiotics like Halloween candy, the number of deaths from these drug-resistant superbugs could exceed each of those figures. We are literally contributing to our own annihilation, and there is no time to waste in changing the way that we use antibiotics. The report lays out recommendations on how to do this.
First, we need to take antibiotics out of agriculture. We’ve discussed the dangers of GMOs or the way that herbicides are giving people cancer before. Antibiotic are no different. We need to find ways to phase out their use in plants and animals if we’re to have a fighting chance against the looming threat of these superbugs.
Next, we need to significantly reduce the use of antibiotics in medical practice. It’s no secret that big pharma and the drug lobby have had great influence on medical practice and prescription trends. But, when it comes to antibiotics, the key may be better education. Many doctors prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics for almost any infection because that’s what they were taught in medical school. Making doctors aware of just how serious the threat of drug-resistant pathogens is not negotiable.
Finally, we need to do everything we can to reduce risk factors for spreading germs. Improving access to clean water and proper sewage management are especially important in third world countries. Improving hygiene and sanitation practices at home, school, work, and hospitals is another.
Remember that you are in control of your own health and your own body. No one has the right to make medical decisions for you. Before taking prescribed antibiotics or administering them to your child, do some research. Have an honest conversation with your doctor about the risks and benefits of any course of antibiotics. Be open about concerns regarding drug-resistant bacteria, immune damage, and increased cancer risk.
Additionally, remember that you can affect change by voting with your wallets. Choose to buy foods that are organic and not grown with antibiotics. Every dollar we spend supports the company selling the product. It’s important that we don’t support the wrong ones, even though it can be inconvenient. Agricultural companies will be far more likely to move away from antibiotic use if there is a public demand for it.
We’re facing a massive global health event that requires immediate action if we’re going to stop it. This will affect our children and our children’s children. For many of us, this epidemic could very well happen in our lifetime. We need to be vigilant. This is a problem that will only be solved if we act now to limit the use of antibiotics wherever possible.
There’s no doubt that antibiotics save lives. It’s widely agreed that the discovery of penicillin may have been one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century. But as humanity it wont to do, we have taken something good and used it to excess. You can hardly walk into a doctor’s office with a cold without being sent home with some antibiotics. Our food supply is riddled with these drugs and many others meant to increase productivity and profits, despite the risk to consumers.
This is a pending epidemic that could devastate lives across the planet. If we act now, we may be able to stop it – before it’s too late.
Antibiotics are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world.
Their overuse in humans and agriculture will lead to a global crisis of drug-resistant superbugs if we don’t change things.
Inappropriate use of antimicrobial drugs is damaging our gut health and immune systems, and has been associated with cancer.
If we don’t make changes now, drug-resistant infections could kill 10 million a year within a generation.
We can fix the problem by:
- Removing antibiotics from agriculture
- Reducing their use in humans
- Improving access to clean water and good hygiene