What are we going to do without antibiotics?
“If you look back through history… most people didn’t die of cancer or heart disease; the lifestyle diseases that affect us in the West today. They didn’t die of these, because they didn’t live long enough to develop them. They died of injuries… and most of the time from infection which finished what those injuries began. All of this changed when antibiotics arrived.” — Maryn McKenna
But what happens when antibiotics are lost?
It’s not a rhetorical question. For many, the post-antibiotic era is now.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conservatively says that 23,000 die each year. Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates 700,000 deaths. That’s a lot of people. And yet, says science writer Maryn McKenna in her TED Talk, “There’s a good chance that you don’t feel at risk.” But you are.
“More than anything else, [without antibiotics] we’d lose the confident way we live our everyday lives,” McKenna says. “If you knew that any injury could kill you, would you ride a motorcycle? Bomb down a ski slope? Climb a ladder to hang your Christmas lights? Let your kid slide into home plate?”
Antibiotics support most of modern life, including yours. They make life-saving operations possible and are the reason a child carelessly scraping her leg is much less than her parent’s worst nightmare.
And yet, we have and are still wasting antibiotics with shocking carelessness.
Nowhere is this more evident than in this fact: “On much of the planet, most meat animals get antibiotics every day of their lives not to cure illnesses, but to fatten them up and protect them against the factory farm conditions they are raised in,” says McKenna.
Let me reiterate: When these drugs are the only means by which we can perform C-sections, biopsies or just slide into home plate, wasting antibiotics on healthy animals is simply unacceptable.
That hasn’t stopped the industry from pushing back hard in defense of its reckless practice. But as meat raised without antibiotics becomes more and more popular, it’s clear Americans aren’t convinced. And they shouldn’t be — the science is clear.
In 1945, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Alexander Fleming warned against overusing and misusing the antibiotic “miracle drug” he discovered. He warned that “negligent use of penicillin change[s] the nature of the microbe” and makes it resistant. And his warning rang true.
In the 1950's, when researchers discovered that feeding regular, low levels of antibiotics to farm animals allowed them to grow fatter, faster, and survive otherwise toxic conditions, meat production skyrocketed as prices declined. This practice became a pillar of factory farming — and remained so, even when, two decades later, it was found to breed and spread resistant bacteria.
Today, as microbes are exposed to constant, nonlethal doses of antibiotics, we continue to create effective breeding grounds for drug-resistant bacteria in our factory farming operations. McKenna admonished that “In just 70 years we have pushed a pillar of modern medicine to the brink,” and if nothing changes, there’s no doubt it will fall.
Luckily, awareness of this issue is spreading. The next step is action. We can still avoid the worst realities of a post-antibiotic era, but things must change.
I encourage you to get involved by signing this petition to the USDA, calling for labels on meat raised on antibiotics. The government may be lagging in it’s attention to the issue, but with informative labels, consumers can continue to push the industry to change.