The featured Catalyst documentary, “Antibiotic Resistance,” offers a 30-minute-long review of some of the many factors contributing to this man-made scourge.
Today, people are so used to the idea that an antibiotic can cure just about any infection; few can even consider the possibility that someday this remedy may no longer be an option.
Indeed, antibiotics have increased the human lifespan by about a decade, and certain conditions simply could not be treated without them. Take organ transplants for example. Without antibiotics, such procedures become tremendously risky, with a low rate of success.
According to Catalyst, about half of all emergency room admissions are also related to bacterial infections, and they too would have a poor rate of recovery without antibiotics.
Even minor surgeries become risky propositions without these infection-busting drugs. Ditto for everyday infections resulting from cuts, scrapes or bites.
In many ways, modern medicine as we know it is built around a foundation of antibiotics, and that foundation is now severely threatened by the emergence of microbes that are resistant to even our harshest, last-resort antibiotics.
Prior to antibiotics, half of the world’s population died from infections, and many died during early childhood. This is the reality we now face yet again, unless we somehow manage to get antibiotic resistance under control.
Animals and Humans Are Part of a Bacterial Ecosystem
In recent years, researchers have discovered that bacteria and other microorganisms are far from mere adversaries to be carpet-bombed into oblivion. Instead, microorganisms are part and parcel of us — we exist as part of a bacterial ecosystem and, in fact, many of our biological processes rely on them.
Even pathogenic bacteria that can cause severe disease only really become a threat to health when they’re allowed to crowd out other, more beneficial bacteria that naturally help keep the pathogens in check. Even certain viruses play an important and supportive role in human health.
Part of the drug resistance problem we’re now facing as a result of decades’ worth ofantibiotic misuse is the fact that bacteria are incredibly adaptable. Unless they’re completely wiped out, the surviving stragglers pass on their resistance to other bacteria.
Another piece of the puzzle is bacteria’s ability to share genetic material outside of the procreative process. Scientists recently discovered a bacterial gene (called mcr-1) that can spread among different bacteria with remarkable ease, conferring resistance to the strongest antibiotics in our medical arsenal.
This is a scenario that many have feared might happen, and now there’s no escaping its reality. Less than a year after the mcr-1 gene was first discovered in pigs and people in China,1,2,3 it has now been identified in the U.S., both in pork samples and a patient being treated for E.coli infection.4,5
How Bacteria Share Genetic Material
All that’s required for bacteria to share genetic material, delivered in little packages called plasmids, is proximity. If they’re close enough, the plasmid can rapidly transfer between the various bacteria bumping against each other.
As explained in the film, if humans had this kind of gene-sharing ability, you’d be able to change the color of your eyes from blue to brown simply by standing next to a brown-eyed person. For bacteria, this ability means they can spread drug resistance to other bacteria at “astonishing speeds.”
Unfortunately, scientists drastically underestimated the speed at which resistance can spread, and now we’re faced with a far shorter deadline, in terms of “the end of antibiotics” in medicine, than previously expected.
To give you an idea of just how quickly resistance is now spreading, consider this: a brand new antibiotic was introduced in 2010. The very next year, resistant bacteria were detected.
Antibiotics Are Overused in Human Medicine
Overuse of antibiotics in human medicine is one contributing factor to rising drug resistance among bacteria. In Australia, antibiotics are prescribed at a rate of more than one prescription for every man, woman and child each year. The situation is similar in many other developed nations.
According to Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as much as half of all antibiotics used in American clinics and hospitals “are either unneeded or patients are getting the wrong drugs to treat their infections.”6
Lack of education is part of the problem. More than 40 percent of Americans and an astonishing 65 percent of Australians still believe antibiotics can treat viral infections.7Many patients also insist on taking an antibiotic “just in case” — a strategy that is highly inadvisable.
Antibiotics have both short- and long-term effects on the composition and health of the microbes in your gut, and your microbiome plays a crucial role in your overall immune function and general health. You really don’t want to decimate yourmicrobiome with an antibiotic unless absolutely necessary.
Children treated with antibiotics also raise their risk of developing health problems in adulthood, including making them more susceptible to infectious diseases, allergies, obesity and autoimmune disorders as they grow older.8,9
Doctors are not without blame though. Forty-five percent of British doctors admit prescribing antibiotics even when they know it won’t do any good.10
Antibiotic Use in Food Production Must Be Curbed
According to the CDC,11 there are 12 antibiotic-resistant pathogens that pose a “serious” threat to public health, and one-third of them are found in food. The four drug-resistant pathogens in question are:
While livestock sometimes need antibiotics to cure an infection, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) routinely use antibiotics to speed up growth and counteract poor hygiene and crowded living conditions.
In the U.S., an estimated 80 percent of antibiotics sold end up in livestock. In Australia, approximately 70 percent of all antibiotics are used in agriculture.
As noted in the film, industrialized factory farming owes its success to the routine use of antibiotics. However, we’re now paying an unexpectedly heavy price for this convenient way of raising cheap food, as agricultural use of antibiotics is feeding and speeding up the spread of drug-resistant bacteria that kill an estimated 23,000 Americans each year.
Antibiotic Resistance Spreads Via Multiple Routes
Drug-resistant bacteria also accumulate in CAFO manure that is then spread on fields and enters waterways, allowing the drug-resistant bacteria to spread far and wide and ultimately back up the food chain to your dinner plate. You can see how easily antibiotic resistance spreads, via the food you eat and community contact, in the CDC’s infographic below.
Phage Therapy Explored as an Alternative to Antibiotics
A type of virus called a bacteriophage, or simply “phage,” is a natural predator of bacteria, capable of killing bacteria that antibiotics cannot. In fact for every bacteria in your intestine there are about 10 phages. Wherever bacteria reside, you will also find phages, because phages depend on bacteria for their survival. Evidence suggests that phages partner with animals and humans to stave off bacterial infections and control the composition of friendly microbes in your body.
So-called phage therapy is now being explored as a potential alternative to conventional antibiotics. As noted in the film, if a patient can be safely infected with the right phage, it could be a therapy to beat antibiotic resistance.
Phages specialize in breaking open and killing certain kinds of bacteria, hijacking them in order to replicate. Most phages have hollow heads, which store their DNA and RNA, and tunnel tails designed for binding to the surface of their bacterial targets. Once a phage has attached itself to a bacterium, the viral DNA is injected through the tail into the host cell.
Progeny are rapidly produced inside the host, until these little phages burst from the host cell, killing it in the process. These phages then go on to infect and kill more target bacteria until all bacteria have been consumed. What makes phages unique is that they cannot affect any cell other than bacteria, so they offer great hope as a targeted therapy against bacterial infections.
Another experimental type of treatment involves removing the drug-resistant gene package (the plasmid) from the bacteria, using a genetically engineered bacterium. Animal studies show that mice infected with drug-resistant bacteria that are given this treatment end up responding to the conventional antibiotics again. Scientists believe this kind of tool may allow them to develop treatments against bacterial infections that won’t promote resistance in the process.
How You Can Help Stop the Spread of Antibiotic-Resistant Disease
In light of the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant disease, it would be wise to employ techniques and strategies that will not only reduce your own risk of falling victim, but also help curtail the spread of antibiotic resistance in general. While the problem of antibiotic resistance really needs to be stemmed through public policy on a nationwide level, the more people who get involved on a personal level, the better. Such strategies include:
Using antibiotics only when absolutely necessary
For example, antibiotics are typically unnecessary for most ear infections, and they do NOT work on viruses. They only work on bacterial infections, and even then, they’re best reserved for more serious infections.
Taking an antibiotic unnecessarily will kill off your beneficial gut bacteria for no reason at all, which could actually make it more difficult for you to recover from your illness. If you do take a course of antibiotics, be sure to reseed your gut with healthy bacteria, either by eating fermented foods or taking a high-quality probiotic.
As an all-around preventive measure, make sure your vitamin D level is optimized year-round, especially during pregnancy, along with vitamin K2. A number of other natural compounds can also help boost your immune system function to help rid you of an infection, including vitamin C, oil of oregano, garlic, Echinacea and tea tree oil.
High-quality colloidal silver may be a valuable addition to your medicine cabinet to treat cuts and scrapes in lieu of antibacterial creams. Colloidal silver has been regarded as an effective natural antibiotic for centuries, and research shows it can even be helpful against some antibiotic-resistant pathogens.12,13,14
Manuka honey can also be used for topical applications. Clinical trials have found that Manuka honey can effectively eradicate more than 250 clinical strains of bacteria, including some resistant varieties, such as MRSA.
Avoiding antibacterial household products
This includes items such as antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers and wipes, as these too promote antibiotic resistance.
Properly washing your hands with warm water and plain soap, to prevent the spreading of bacteria
Be particularly mindful of washing your hands and kitchen surfaces after handling raw meats, as about half of all meat sold in grocery stores around the U.S. is likely to be contaminated with potentially dangerous bacteria.
Purchasing organic, antibiotic-free meats and other foods
Reducing the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a significant reason for making sure you’re only eating grass-fed, organically raised meats and animal products. Besides growing and raising your own, buying your food from responsible, high-quality, and sustainable sources is your best bet, and I strongly encourage you to support the small family farms in your area.