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Hospital-associated Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria (Source: Creative Commons)

Hospital-associated Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria (Source: Creative Commons)

After penicillin was introduced to the world as the best weapon against infections at the beginning of the 20th century, Nobel Prize winner Alexander Fleming warned of the dangers of misuse. This included the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A couple of decades after penicillin was discovered, farmers were already being introduced to the novel idea of feeding antibiotics to livestock. It made them grow faster on less food. Preventing possible infections while encouraging growth without any visible side effects (not immediately anyway) promised a world of possibilities in conventional, large-scale farming.

Fast forward to today when approximately 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics are used annually in animal agriculture, with the majority of it used not for disease treatment but in low doses to promote growth.

Such use has been demonstrated to be one of the factors that influences antibiotic resistance. Unlike a high dose of medication used in emergency situations, the continuous low-dose usage of these powerful chemicals allows bacteria to adapt and develop resistance mechanisms.

Bacteria are known to be highly adaptable organisms and antibiotic use is just another hurdle they need to overcome in order to survive. Superbugs have been in the news and in many conference rooms over the last few years and the reason is a serious one: There is no medical treatment for bacteria that shrug off medical treatment. 

In the spring of 2014 a report by the United Nations prompted the World Health Organization to renew their warning about antibiotic resistance. From relatively easy-to-treat infections such as urinary tract infections, to more serious diseases such as tuberculosis, gonorrhea and meningitis, humans are running out of options when it comes to antibiotics, scientists said.

Various bacteria become antibiotic resistant and even the newest antibiotic compounds become futile in the battle against superbugs, especially in countries where access to clean water and medicine is limited or nonexistent.

Yet developed countries where hygiene and treatment are expected to prevent such problems are no longer safe from this threat. The most at-risk categories of people are babies, the elderly and people suffering from chronic diseases that weaken their immune systems. 

Identifying strategies to stall the development of superbug strains has been on the agenda for many years now. We now know that the transfer of resistant bacteria from farm animals to humans is not a rare occurrence; it has been shown to happen often and consistently. Also, major farm operations that use antibiotic as growth promoters and to treat infections have been found to harbor strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

The answer is clear: Reduced antibiotic use, especially in conventional farming, and especially of the kinds of antibiotic compounds that are used to treat humans. In Europe, Denmark put a stop to the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics after discovering antibiotic-resistant strains in farm animals, thus greatly reducing the occurrence of dangerous resistant bacteria strains.

Yet the success of their restricted use has been shadowed by the identification of resistant bacteria strains in poultry that are imported from countries that still allow the non-therapeutic use of such medication.

Unless the use of antibiotics for growth purposes is reduced or stopped entirely, humans will find themselves more and more under the threat of developing infectious diseases that modern medicine has no treatment for.

Antibiotics were once hailed as a miracle drug. They still are, in many situations, yet the scientists predictions are dire, unless action is taken, and soon.

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