Antibiotic Resistance: How Drug Misuse in Agriculture is Hazardous to Human Health
In March 1942, Mrs. Anne Miller of New Haven, Connecticut, was near death, suffering from a streptococcal infection, a common cause of death then. She had been hospitalized for a month, often delirious with her temperature spiking to nearly 107, while doctors tried everything available to treat her, including sulfa drugs, blood transfusions, and even surgery. Nothing worked. Desperate to save Mrs. Miller, doctors administered an experimental drug: penicillin, which Alexander Fleming discovered 14 years earlier. Overnight, she recovered, becoming the first person in the world to be saved by an antibiotic. Rather than dying in her thirties, Mrs. Miller lived to be 90 years old.
Behind the scenes, antibiotics enable much of modern medicine. We use them to cure infectious diseases, but also to safely facilitate everything from surgery and chemotherapy, to treatment of premature babies and organ transplants. Without antibiotics, even routine medical procedures can lead to life-threatening infections. And we’re at risk of losing them. Today, decades after Mrs. Miller was cured, bacteria like the one that infected her are becoming resistant to antibiotics.
How did we get into this situation, and so quickly?
First, let’s talk about antibiotics.
What are Antibiotics?
Simply put, antibiotics are chemicals that prevent the growth of bacteria. Unfortunately, some bacteria have become resistant to all currently available antibiotics. At the same time, we’ve stopped discovering new ones. Still, there’s hope we can get ahead of the problem.
In 1945, as Alexander Fleming accepted his Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin, he warned that bacterial resistance had the potential to ruin the miracle of antibiotics. And he was right. In the 1940s and 1950s, resistant bacteria already began to appear. From then until the 1980s, pharmaceutical companies countered the problem by discovering many new antibiotics. At first, this was a highly successful and highly profitable enterprise. Over time, a few things changed. Newly discovered antibiotics were only effective against a very narrow spectrum of infections, whereas the first ones had been broadly applicable, which meant they were much less profitable. In the early days, antibiotics were heavily overprescribed, including for viral infections that they had no effect on.
As pharmaceutical companies began to develop a wide range of medications that were taken for long periods of time – for example cholesterol medications and antidepressants – that proved to be much more profitable, they stopped looking for new antibiotics. By the mid-1980s, no new classes of antibiotics were discovered. Today, antibiotics are so unprofitable that many large pharmaceutical companies have stopped trying to develop them at all, and smaller companies that do create new antibiotics end up going bankrupt before their drugs become available to the public.
But over time, bacteria has continued to acquire resistance. Resistance develops when bacteria no longer respond to antibiotics that were previously effective and able to cure infection. This means that treatments no longer work for infections that are caused by microorganisms that have developed resistance. This is the case for both humans and animals. The increase in infections like this raises the risk of diseases spreading in communities as well as through flocks or herds of animals. This also means that illnesses last longer, mortality rates are higher, and the cost of treatment goes up because alternatives need to be found. Alarmingly, bacteria can pass along resistance by sharing genetic information between individual bacteria and even across species. Now, bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics are becoming more and more common, and, increasingly, some bacteria strains are resistant to all antibiotics.
When you think about antibiotic resistance, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the hospital or another clinical environment. And yes, it’s true that humans do overuse antibiotics and it has enormously contributed to antibiotic resistance. But the truth is, the agricultural sector is the largest consumer of antibiotics globally. Antibiotics are used in alarming rates not only to treat and prevent infections, but to promote the growth of food animals.
Antibiotic Resistance in Farming
Demand for food is increasing rapidly – the United Nations (U.N.) estimates that the global population will reach 11.2 billion by 2100. To keep up with the additional mouths to feed, intensive farming practices have maximized production, but often at the expense of the environment and human health.
Many of the bacteria that are common in animals, such as salmonella, can also cause disease in humans, and many antibiotics important for human health are also being used in animals. Resistant microorganisms can be passed on from animals to humans through direct contact, the food chain, and the environment – for example, by fertilizing crops with manure that then enters the water system. There are many reasons why farmers might decide to use antibiotics on their livestock. While this includes therapeutic use to treat bacterial infections in animals, it also includes prophylactic use, where antibiotics are given in an absence of the disease to prevent potential infections from developing. For instance, when one animal gets an infection, prophylactic antibiotics might be given to the entire herd. While this may be beneficial in some circumstances, antibiotics may be used inappropriately to compensate for increased risk of disease outbreaks as a result of poor living conditions, overcrowding, and intensive production practices.
Dairy cattle receive treatment when they are sick and also during periods when there is an increased risk for disease. Studies have shown that antibiotics are often excreted in animal waste – as much as 70% in some cases. As a result, animal waste can contain resistant bacteria and sub-lethal concentrations of antibiotics, which are still able to select for resistance. A single mature dairy cow can produce as much as 120lbs of feces per day. The largest U.S. dairy farms have over 15,000 cows, though farms with 1,000–5,000 cows are more common. That’s an incredible amount of waste that has to go somewhere. In typical dairy farming operations, the waste is scraped from the stalls into a pit and from there it’s pumped to the manure tanks. From the manure tanks, the waste is piped to a storage unit, so in effect, the manure tank acts as a massive mixing pot for the different factors that can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance. However, to farmers, livestock manure is a fantastic organic fertilizer. In the U.S., about 15.8 million acres of cropland (equivalent to about 5% of all U.S. cropland) is fertilized with livestock manure.
Another reason farmers give their livestock antibiotics is to promote animal growth. This is done by supplementing their feed with antibiotics. While this may be financially beneficial for the farmer – helping to grow bigger animals faster – using antibiotics as growth promoters is considered to be inappropriate as it contributes to antibiotic resistance.
Combating the Threat
What can we do to combat antibiotic resistance? It must be a global effort. First, we need to control the use of existing antibiotics, combat resistance to existing antibiotics, create new antibiotics, and find new ways to fight bacterial infections. Despite warnings from health experts that overusing antibiotics is resulting in germs becoming resistant, some drug manufacturers continue to urge livestock farmers to use antibiotics beyond what may be necessary. The World Health Organization (WHO) has listed several antibiotics as medically important to human health. The agency has recommended a reduction in the use of those drugs on farms. The hope is that reduction will slow microbes’ adaptation and resistance to those drugs. If their use isn’t reduced, the WHO and other agencies have warned that nearly all of today’s antibiotics will be unable to prevent or treat diseases in humans by 2050. As individuals, the choices we make in the supermarket can help combat against antibiotic use in agriculture. If the demand increases for dairy, meat, and poultry raised responsibly in terms of antibiotics and welfare, retailers and farmers will feel the pressure to comply with guidelines. The bottom line: Dairy, meat, and poultry raised without antibiotics is worth the extra cost.
In terms of discovering new antibiotics, nature offers promising new compounds. Organisms like fungi have evolved over millions of years to survive and thrive in competitive environments, meaning they often contain antibiotic properties, to give them a survival advantage over certain bacteria. With enough investment in antibiotic development and controlled use of our current antibiotics, we can still get ahead of resistance.
One way to combat bacterial infections is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. While antibiotics are effective against infectious bacteria inside the body, using a disinfectant product, such as Vital Oxide, to eliminate pathogens on objects and surfaces can prevent bacteria from causing infection in humans and animals in the first place. Note: Do not ever ingest or inject cleaning or disinfectant products – no matter who suggests it’s a good idea. This is not an effective method for treating infection and it is extremely dangerous. Disinfectants, when properly used, are very beneficial on objects and surfaces to help kill bacteria and viruses.
Our product, Vital Oxide, is unique in that it is highly effective against pathogens while being colorless, odorless, and free from harmful fumes and residues. It also has a safety rating that is not common with other disinfectants. Vital Oxide has the lowest toxicity level that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gives for pesticide (disinfectant) applications – Category 4 – which means that you do not need to wear gloves or any other personal protection equipment while applying it. Vital Oxide is safe to use on virtually any surface that can get wet. Vital Oxide makes the likelihood of humans and animals becoming infected with bacteria and viruses less of a threat. Vital Oxide is NSF certified D2 (No Rinse Required) as a food contact surface sanitizer, and kills 99.999% of bacteria, including infectious bacteria that are common in farm animals – such as E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Penicillin-Resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae, and more. Currently, Vital Oxide is used to eliminate germs in hoof treatments, teat dips for dairy animals, milking stations, chicken coops, and barns, as well as in schools, hospitals, public mass transit, and in homes across the globe. In addition, Vital Oxide has been approved by the EPA for use against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.
Vital Oxide is ready to use, no mixing required. Simply spray, wipe, or fog right from the bottle. Non-irritating to the skin, and non-corrosive to treated articles. It’s safe for use around farm animals, pets, children, and everyone, really. Except germs, that is! Vital Oxide is powerful, responsible, and safe for the environment.Learn more about the science behind our products and how to make planet-friendly choices. If you have any questions about disinfecting, green cleaning, or anything else, please feel free to Contact Us or send us a message on Facebook.