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I was not really recommending the death penalty for feeding antibiotics to livestock. That was just for dramatic effect. But the reckless misuse of antibiotics is rapidly destroying their effectiveness.
A recent study by Public Health England found that the proportion of campylobacter bacteria that are resistant to ciproflaxin, the standard antibiotic in cases of food poisoning, has risen from 30 per cent to 48 per cent in just the past 10 years. If we don't stop the rot, we are heading back to the 19th century in terms of our ability to control infections. Even minor wounds and simple operations will carry the risk of death.
The same goes for communicable diseases. In the 19th century, tuberculosis was the biggest killer of young and middle-age adults in Europe and America. With the discovery of streptomycin in 1944, isoniazid in 1952, and rifamptin in the 1970s, it ceased to be a major health problem. But now, the drug resistance has grown so great that at least 190,000 people worldwide died of tuberculosis last year.
The problem of bacterial resistance has been understood for a long time. If the antibiotic kills all the harmful bacteria it targets in the person or animal it is given to, no resistance develops. But if it only kills off the weaker ones because it was a very low dosage or because the course of drugs was not finished, the surviving bacteria will be the most resistant ones.
They will pass their resistance on to all their descendants, who will undergo similar episodes of winnowing out the less-resistant ones many more times, and gradually, the resistance grows. The only way to keep antibiotics effective, therefore, is to use them as rarely as possible and to make sure that they kill off all the target bacteria when they are used. We are not doing this. Doctors overprescribe antibiotics, often giving them to people who do not have bacterial infections just to get them out of their offices (and sometimes getting a kickback from drug companies for each prescription they write). And nobody makes sure that patients complete the course of treatment even though they already feel better.
Much worse is the widespread practice of giving regular low doses of antibiotics to cattle, pigs, and chickens, partly as a means of controlling the spread of disease in their cramped and unsanitary living conditions, but mostly because it makes them put weight on more quickly. Getting them to the slaughterhouse a week or two faster is money in the hand.
This insanely greedy and reckless practice is now banned in the European Union, but it is still commonplace in China and the United States. In fact, 80 per cent of American antibiotic production goes to farm animals who are not ill, and as intensive farming methods spread to developing countries, so does antibiotic use in agriculture.
This has to stop. So does overprescribing by doctors in developed countries and the over-the-counter sale of antibiotics without prescriptions that is so normal in many developing countries. "We are now staring at overwhelming evidence of rampant antibiotic resistance, across all ages, all over the country," said Dr Vinod Paul, head of paediatrics at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi.
We also need a whole new generation of antibiotics to replace those that are hopelessly compromised, which requires persuading large pharmaceutical companies to change their research priorities. (They make more money by developing new drugs that address the chronic health problems of the affluent, so we'll have to subsidise them.)
It all has to be done, and it has to start now. "On current trends," said Dr Chan at the UN, "a common disease like gonorrhoea may become untreatable. Doctors facing patients will have to say, 'I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do for you'."