Is the rise of antibiotic-resistance in livestock a threat to humans?

We are all aware of the great debt we owe Alexander Fleming.

Before his discovery of Penicillin in 1928, if you cut your arm and it became infected with bacteria, you may well have lost the limb.

If you contracted pneumonia, you would likely die.

If you were one of the 5% of soldiers who contracted a Sexually Transmitted Infection in the First World War, you were facing months of intensive and very unpleasant hospital treatment.

The development of antibiotics made such infections treatable.

Indeed, between 1945 and 1972, life expectancy increased by eight years, for which we have Alexander Fleming to thank.

Antibiotics were a miracle cure for diseases doctors had grown accustomed to see killing their patients and as such they were prescribed with increasing frequency.

Now, in the 21st century, a lack of regulation in both prescription and administration of antibiotics has allowed antibiotic-resistant bacteria to proliferate.

This year, The Lancet revealed that up to 95% of adults in India and Pakistan carried bacteria that were resistant to β-lactam antibiotics. This includes carbapenems, an antibiotic only used if all others have failed.

Make no mistake about it – these figures are terrifying.

It is a real possibility that diseases seen as innocuous today may become fatal again. The next global health crisis is undoubtedly the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

And with the vast quantities of antibiotics being administered to livestock – with a knock on effect for food on our tables – farming methods must be addressed too.

Eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the US are sold for use in farms. Pigs carrying MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant bacterium, were found for the first time in 2007.

As we then eat these same pigs in our bacon sandwiches, our sausage and mash and our roast pork dinners, it is becoming increasingly likely that this is one way we may become infected with MRSA.

Studies show that farms increasing the use of antibiotics see an increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria in their livestock. This was expected, but what researchers were surprised to discover was that within months these strains of resistant bacteria were seen in the farm workers digestive systems.

In 2009, a particular strain of resistant bacteria previously seen only in European farms was seen in hospital patients in Hong Kong.

The lines between animal and human infections are certainly blurring.

Those who support the widespread antibiotic use in livestock acknowledge that resistant bacteria in animals could spread to humans. But they deny this equates to a human health risk.

Epidemiologists studying the spread of MRSA disagree.

Tara Smith has observed the same strains in farms, grocery stores and then subsequently in nasal swabs from humans. She claims this cannot be purely coincidence.

In western cultures where consumers demand cheap and plentiful meat but where profit margins within farming are low, it seems unlikely that farmers will willingly reduce their use of antibiotics. Loss of a whole herd of livestock to bacterial diarrhoea, for example, is not a risk most farmers would willingly take.

However, with the looming threat of superbugs to public health, this is an area that needs more intensive research.

Only then, when the link has been proven beyond doubt, can a strong case be made for limiting antibiotic use within livestock.

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Aspiring Science Writer. Graduate in Biomedical Science from The University of Sheffield. Interests mainly lie in Health Science, but I will dabble in other areas from time to time!

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