Antibiotics have come a long way since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928—so far in fact that they may become obsolete due to their inability to treat minor infections, cites a warning from the World Health Organization at a recent conference in Copenhagen.
Credit the overuse of antibiotics in our food supply--where they're routinely included in livestock feed as a preventative measure to curb the number of infected animals living in overcrowded and unsanitary factory farms--as one of the major reasons for the decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics in treating human infections. A 2010 report from the FDA found that 29 million pounds of antibiotics are fed to animals raised for their flesh, eggs or dairy—a whopping 80 percent of the nation's antibiotic supply. And a 2011 study found that nearly 50 percent of meat samples purchased in five U.S. cities tested positive for the drug-resistant staph bacteria, MRSA.
Widespread exposure to foods laced with antibiotics has led to rising rates of antibiotic resistant pathogens such as e coli, Salmonella and listeria, which, according to the WHO's Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, "are notorious globe-trotters" that can contribute to the spread of pandemic type diseases and infections.
Losing the first-line of antimicrobial defenses makes treating minor issues more difficult, especially as alternative treatments can be more costly, take longer to kill infections and come with greater risks of toxicity than most antibiotics. Chan compared the present state of antibiotics as having the potential to revert us back to just 100 years ago, with illnesses like strep throat or a scratched knee once again capable of killing its victim.
According to Chan, the mortality rate of someone infected by drug-resistant pathogens has an increased risk of 50 percent. And the threats are often found in hospitals, from MRSA to tuberculosis to the rapidly rising rates of C.diff bacteria, which leads to gastroenteritis, a disease responsible for killing five times more people last year than in 1999 (14,500 up from 2,700).
While some restrictions are in place for certain antibiotics, it's not enough, states Chan. "If current trends continue unabated, the future is easy to predict. Some experts say we are moving back to the pre-antibiotic era. No. This will be a post-antibiotic era."
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