Sometimes I read things and shake my head, thinking sarcastically to myself, REALLY? A recent study by a group of worldwide scientists have introduced a map of “hot spots” for antimicrobial resistance in animals in low to middle income countries. The study indicates that bacteria resistant to antibiotics is on the rise worldwide.
To clarify my use of the word’s antimicrobial and antibiotic in the same sentence, they are basically the same thing excepting that antimicrobials are used for a few more things than just bacteria. I’m using the words interchangeably, in this post.
To be precise, antibiotics are medicines used to prevent and treat bacterial infections. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in response to the use of these medicines. Bacteria, not humans, become antibiotic resistant. These bacteria may then infect humans and are harder to treat than non-resistant bacteria. Antimicrobial resistance is a broader term, encompassing resistance to drugs to treat infections caused by other microbes as well, such as parasites, malaria, viruses, HIV and fungi, according to the World Health Organization.
A recent article in Science, a publication of the American Association For The Advancement of Science, delves into the study and reports the development of an index to track the evolution of resistance to multiple drugs. Worldwide, the numbers have almost tripled for chicken and pigs over the last 20 years. Currently, researchers say that in chickens, almost half (.41) of drugs fail 50% of the time. In, pigs, over one quarter of drugs (.34) fail 50% of the time.
According to the article, “the global scale-up in demand for animal protein is the most notable dietary trend of our time. Since 2000, meat production has plateaued in high-income countries but has grown by 68%, 64%, and 40% in Asia, Africa, and South America, respectively. The transition to high-protein diets in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) has been facilitated by the global expansion of intensive animal production systems in which antimicrobials are used routinely to maintain health and productivity”.
Furthermore, “73% of all antimicrobials sold on Earth are used in animals raised for food. A growing body of evidence has linked this practice with the rise of antimicrobial resistant infections, not just in animals but also in humans. Beyond potentially serious consequences for public health, the reliance on antimicrobials to meet demand for animal protein is a likely threat to the sustainability of the livestock industry”.
Now I shake my head. This is not news in the sense that the conversation over antibiotic resistance and the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in animal production for food has been in play for decades. I feel like saying “no kidding, we learned this in kindergarten”. The statistics are staggering however we will continue to debate the issue, worldwide, because industry will deny the science and say it’s not sound, inadequate, or bias. In the United States, we’ve been down this road and the debate was fierce despite the mounting evidence.
What baffles me is why the conversation hasn’t included the method of raising the animals which could be the root cause for the need to heavily dose livestock with antimicrobials. Could it be the heavily concentrated confinement production system of raising animals provides a breeding ground for bacteria, parasites, viruses, and others? Could it be that continual dosing of animals before they’ve even had a chance to contract anything that might need antibiotic treatment is an effort to prevent diseases that are sure to come given the way the animals are raised?
Antibiotics and antimicrobials are enablers for the unsustainable system of industrial animal production therefore we don’t address the root cause. It’s big business folks. Take chickens for example, since they have the highest incidence rate of drug resistance or antibiotic treatment failure worldwide.
In one industrial sized chicken McMansion, on average, each broiler chicken is provided .67 square feet of living space for their entire short life of 6 to 7 weeks. I often use the analogy to put into perspective – the area is less than 1 sheet of paper 8 1/2 x 11 inches or .935 square feet. The new chicken McMansions can hold up to 50,000 chickens. I generally have school age people stand in a group, each on a sheet of paper to demonstrate what it would be like. If you are able, imagine that space keeping you confined where you eat, drink, sit, stand, sleep, defecate and urinate for 6 to 7 weeks. Do you think that you might get sick? Are bacteria and other microbes, parasites, and viruses breeding to infect all of you or some of you? Do you think you need a heavy dose of antibiotics?
Treating with antimicrobials might solve the immediate problem and dosing before the animals get sick might prevent illnesses…. but then again, the treatment might NOT work. It’s akin to playing Russian Roulette. All the while unseen things are happening like bacteria and other things becoming resistant to the drugs and jeopardizing humans to where antibiotic resistance takes hold.
All in all, and I’ll give the benefit of the doubt, unintended consequences arise in the unsustainable and heavily concentrated industrial animal production system.
Experts agree that antibiotics and antimicrobials have become enablers for this system to survive.
Regulations have curtailed industry practices of antibiotic use in some countries. However, some of the same players in the industry can be found practicing the very thing that they are well aware of in low to middle income countries where curtailing of these practices hasn’t caught up with them. From my experience’s over the years with the poultry production industry they are globally playing by the same old rule book. Do it until we are told that we can’t. It makes dollars and cents to follow the rule book.
There is much more to learn from the study if you are so inclined to do so.