George Osborne is absolutely right about one thing. We need coordinated global action on antibiotics ASAP or millions of people will die.
Not because superbugs are resistant to them so our miracle life-savers don’t work any more. But because our miracle life-savers are super killers in their own right – far deadlier than killing just the 10 million people a year George anticipates by 2050.
And make no mistake, they ARE killers. That’s how they work. Killing is what they’re designed to do. It’s why they’ve been so successful at saving lives in the past – they kill harmful bacteria that try to kill us.
Trouble is, that’s not all they kill. They’re not targeted that tightly. So in destroying the one harmful bacterium that’s so dangerous to us, they take out other bacteria too. Modifying and maiming others. Collateral damage among the 100 trillion bacteria that naturally inhabit our human gut – not unlike setting off a hydrogen bomb.
Kind of devastating to our bodies, because those bacteria are supposed to be there. Without them we wouldn’t be able to digest food or control most of our bodily functions. Nor would our immune systems work.
Sure, a course of antibiotics can cure us of an illness. But our systems never come back 100% to where they were before. While many bacteria can quickly reproduce themselves to make up numbers, whole colonies of others are simply wiped out. The essential diversity that defends us is lost. We are more at risk, less resilient, weaker than we were.
As for the damage antibiotics cause, we’re seeing the results every day – in the spreading waistlines of our rapidly fattening population. Today, two-thirds of adults are either overweight or obese. So are one third of children. And as any doctor can advise, obesity puts us well on the road to diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Not just 10 million a year, George. More like 100 times that.
The glutton factory
Caused by the side effect that antibiotics glitch the mechanism that controls our hunger. It switches on, but never switches off – unconsciously we’re always craving food, even though we’ve just eaten. We become gluttons, OD-ing on quick-charge power foods like burgers, pizza, hot dogs and chips.
Of course farmers lucked onto this decades ago. That feeding antibiotics to livestock would make them bulk up quicker. Four times as big, in quarter of the time, all for the same amount of food. The ultimate growth booster. Today, 70% of all antibiotics goes into agriculture.
Which is why world consumption of antibiotics is now between 65,000 and 240,000 TONNES a year. Not our thumb-suck either, that’s straight out of the Prime Minister’s specially requested review of antibiotics: Antimicrobials in Agriculture and the Environment.
Which also means George, that it’s not exactly necessary to incentivise pharmaceutical companies to produce antibiotics. At 240,000 tonnes a year, they’re making a mint already.
Now we get to the nasty bit.
Super growth promoters
OK, so those 240,000 tonnes get fed to cows (and sheep and pigs and poultry and fish) along with their daily feedstuff. They chew it around and digest it, extracting the nutrients they need, then promptly poo 80-90% of it straight out again as waste.
Well no, not waste. Manure – rich, fertile nutrition for plants, laced through with antibiotics. Grazing grass, feed crops like sugar beet, soya and rapeseed, fed BACK into animals. Fertiliser for fruit, veg and grain staples like rice and wheat and maize.
Yup, you’ve got it. Pretty well everything that we humans eat these days has residual antibiotics in it. Our share of the 240,000 tonnes a year.
Not big doses, mind. Strictly sub-therapeutic. Small enough for our own gut bacteria to develop their own built-in antibiotic resistance. And of course small enough to knock our hunger switches out of kilter so we all become food gluttons – bulking up on power foods just like the cows do. Four times as big, in quarter of the time. Gimme another five burgers.
Yeah, so antibiotics, George. Not one of your best ideas.
But a replacement for them, now you’re talking.
The topdog medics will probably throw up their hands, but one option might be bacteriophages – using VIRUSES to kill harmful bacteria, the way the Soviets did back in the Cold War. Easier to target more precisely – more rifle than shotgun – easy to mutate in parallel as bacteria themselves mutate to find resistance.
Easy to fund too – just take it out of the profits being used to produce 240,000 tonnes of antibiotics a year that the world no longer needs because they’re killing us. Or at least the diabetes, heart disease and cancer they trigger through obesity that are killing us.
One snag. It takes 12 or more years to develop a new drug and release it to patients. In the meantime, we have no defence – as antibiotics literally become worse than useless.
Hygiene to the rescue
Ah, but we’re not dead yet.
Because the one sure way to compensate for antibiotics is AVOID needing them in the first place.
We can’t get sick if there are no germs. So we need to ensure that there aren’t any.
Right now, our daily hygiene is so iffy, it’s a wonder we’re not dying in droves already.
- 95% of people don’t wash their hands properly.
- 62% of men and 40% of women NEVER wash their hands after the loo.
- Only 12% of people wash their hands before eating.
Easy peasy, right George?
Soap and water when we can, antibacterial wipes or gel when we can’t. A lot more affordable than 240,000 tonnes of killer antibiotics.
But it’s not just germs on our hands. We need to look at our living space as well. The enclosed rooms we share at school, work, eating out or being entertained – they’re full of germs too. Unless we mist them up overnight when we’re not there – sterilise germs in the air and on all surfaces with ionised hydrogen peroxide.
No germs on our hands, no germs where we live. Barring accidents we could get by without antibiotics – at least in the short term.
Over to you, George.
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