So, this is how it usually goes: We get infected with harmful bacteria, and if our immune system can’t handle it on its own, we use antibiotics. They kill off the unwanted intruders along with some of our good symbiotic bacteria. It’s not ideal, but a small price to pay when it’s a life and death situation. Overall it’s a pretty good system. Now, imagine a different scenario in which some bacteria become immune to our antibiotics. We would effectively go back at least 100 years in our medical history, before penicillin was invented in 1928. We would have no way of treating bacterial infections. Considering how fast bacteria can spread thanks to our modern ways of transportation, it could be a worldwide threat to billions. Sounds pretty scary, right? Well, it gets worse! Those kinds of bacteria already exist and we, as a human race, are hard at work to produce a lot more of them. Why? And what can we do to stop it?
How did superbacteria come about?
The following video from Harvard Medical School shows the process in real time. When exposed to a significant amount of antibiotics regularly, the bacteria adapt. The ones with mutations that allow them to survive replicate, and stronger, more resilient bacteria are created.
Why are we making them?
It’s not so much that we want to create “Super bacteria”, it’s just that our modern way of living allows such bacteria to exist. The best breeding grounds for them are places where antibiotics are used continuously in high doses. Unfortunately, two very common places fit the description perfectly: hospitals and factory farms.
Lance Price, a public health researcher and an antibiotic resistance specialist, describes both of them in his TED talk.
- Hospitals – 3,5 million kg of antibiotics per year are used in hospitals in the USA alone. Of course, we need them to save lives, but this number signifies an excess and overuse. The problem is that they are often being prescribed a little bit too freely and taken without care.
- Farms – To compare, an astounding 13,5 million kg of antibiotics are used in food/animal production in the USA yearly. A huge number by itself, but the really scary part is that only 20% of that is used to treat sick animals. The remaining 80% is used as a “production tool” – to allow for higher density of animals, to let the animals grow faster, and have higher yields. A steady stream of low dose antibiotics coupled with thousands of animals crammed into small spaces, stressed, and unhealthy – you couldn’t design a better factory for creating antibiotic resistant “Super bacteria” if you tried.
Not just a theory but a very real threat
Even though it all sounds like something happening in a lab somewhere far, far away from us and the real world, the opposite is true. For example, a drug-resistant bacteria was detected at several popular beaches in Rio de Janeiro just a month before the city was hosting the 2016 Olympic Games (1). It got into the city’s waterways when sewage coming from local hospitals were channeled into the bay. Bad news for the Olympic sailing teams, and a warning sign for us all.
Doctors have an extremely strong type of antibiotic called Colistin at their disposal especially for cases where people get exposed to “Super bacteria.”. Last year researchers confirmed that a patient was carrying a type of salmonella bacteria resistant to this antibiotic of last resort (2); a worrying finding to say the least.
The good news is that it is a reversible situation. Studies show that if we remove the chronic low-dose antibiotic use from factory farming, bacteria become susceptible to them again (3).
What can we do?
The most effective solution is to stop abusing antibiotics, and there are some very specific steps everyone can take to contribute.
What can we do in relation to human antibiotic use?
- We should take a very careful approach when using antibiotics ourselves. We should follow doctor’s orders, and don’t under or overuse the amount we are prescribed.
- We should try to improve and maintain our health by eating fresh, clean, and high quality food, so that we get sick less often and therefore require less antibiotics overall.
What can we do in relation to excessive antibiotic use in farming?
- We should stop buying products that come from factory farmed animals.
- We should buy from small, local producers that use antibiotics only to treat sick animals.
- Or best of all, we should turn to high quality alternatives, like eating insects, that require no antibiotic use at all, and never will.
We at SENS Foods believe that replacing a significant part of our protein and calorie intake from conventionally raised meat with insects is the way to go. It takes power away from the big meat manufacturers and incentivizes farmers to try alternatives, like insect farming, that require no antibiotic use, offer a better sustainability, and pose no threat to animals or humans. Insects are a part of the solution. Insects are the superior choice.
— SENS Bar (@SENSFoods) September 9, 2016
1) Julie Fidler, ‘Bacteria Resistant To ALL Drugs Shows Up In Denmark’, Natural Society, 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/07/05/americas/rio-de-janeiro-super-bacteria/
2) Flora Charner, ‘Super bacteria’ discovered in Rio’s waters as Olympics near’, CNN, 2016, http://naturalsociety.com/bacteria-resistant-all-drugs-denmark/
3) Henrik C. Wegener, ‘Antibiotic resistance – linking human and animal health’, Institute of Medicine, 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK114485/