We’re charging along at full speed in the dark, but who is keeping a lookout?
Hot on the heels of all the political hoo-hah this week, Jim O’Neill, Chairman of the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance is quite rightly sounding the alarm that AMR needs urgent action. Exactly per the recommendations of his Special AMR Review to the Prime Minister.
700,000 people will die this year from illnesses made untreatable by microbial resistance to antibiotics.
Growth boosters – from farm, to food, to you
But 40 times more will die from illnesses brought on by ballooning obesity accelerated by antibiotics in their food. 2.8 million from obesity itself, 1.5 from diabetes, 8.2 from cancer and 17.3 million from heart disease.
Yes, antimicrobial resistance is a critical issue – identified by England’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Sally Davies, as a threat on par with terrorism.
But it’s chicken-feed alongside our raging obesity epidemic – already visibly affecting two-thirds of all adults. Accelerating unstoppable from the growth boosting force of antibiotics now present across our entire food spectrum. Whatever we eat is making us fatter and fatter.
Obesity is staring each of us in the face and the damage is already done. Five, ten or twenty years from now we will all succumb to the inevitable illnesses that our condition brings. Killed by antibiotics in far greater numbers than they ever actually saved.
Yes, it’s a disaster on a monumental scale – so great that the medical needs fade into insignificance. We need to get off antibiotics altogether – find an alternative before we all come to an end.
Yes, back to the Dark Ages where the drugs don’t work. Where surgery is almost impossible without a level of hygiene way above our sloppy habits of today. Our only defence against infection in a world without the miracle of antibiotics. Wash your hands or die.
Stop eating, stop living
Yes, away from the supersize factory farms that shovel antibiotics in industrial quantities into the billions of livestock needed to feed our 7½ billion mouths. Less food to eat, less and less and less – not just bringing our weight down, but our numbers too.
Back to the 2½ billion we used to be, before antibiotics exploded into our food supply.
Face it, two-thirds of us are going to die – whether we find an alternative for antibiotics or not. Because without their growth-boosting powers, there’s no chance we can sustain the food production levels necessary to feed us all.
Jim O’Neill describes the threat of rising AMR as a slow-motion car crash – an understatement against what antibiotics are doing across the board.
Maybe when the big numbers start dying, we’ll finally take notice. With antibiotics-driven obesity, we’re looking at the end of the world.
That’s right, 240,000 tonnes. The amount of antibiotics used worldwide every year.
More than enough for a 25mg dose to every man, woman and child on the planet. Overuse or what?
Overuse – and abuse
But not just for medical purposes. Not just for saving lives and fighting infection.
Most of these antibiotics are pumped daily into farm livestock – ostensibly to keep them healthy, in reality to bulk them up for market – to accelerate their growth so they’re four times the size in a quarter of the time.
Amoxicillin, streptomycin, tetracycline, erythromycin, vancomycin, you name it – all types that we’re familiar with and have probably taken ourselves at some stage – all get fed to the 19 billion chickens, 1.4 billion cattle and 1 billion sheep and pigs that feed the world.
Together they account for around 75% of the total 240,000 tonnes world antibiotics output.
You got that right, three quarters of the antibiotics the world chomps through every year are for non-medical use. No wonder we have a problem with antimicrobial resistance.
Bacteria always win
No wonder that savvy bacteria – one of the most successful and longest-surviving life forms of all time – have developed ways to overcome whatever we throw at them. With that kind of volume, they’ve even learned over the years how pass their immunity on to others.
It’s now perfectly possible for a doctor to begin treatment for an illness never seen before, only to find it already has a resistance to every drug in the medicine cupboard. Even colistin and carbapenem, normally held in reserve as drugs of last resort, have been found to be ineffective.
Well sure, global demand for colistin in agriculture was expected to reach 11,942 tonnes per annum by the end of 2015 – generating an income of US$229·5 million – and rising to 16,500 tonnes by 2021.
Result, our defences are breached, there’s no more left in the cupboard.
Doctors are now fighting a rear-guard action and antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is spelling the total collapse of modern medicine. No more heart bypasses or hip replacements, no more caesarean births – without effective infection control, this is the end.
The world in denial
So all of a sudden, the clamour is on to find new antibiotics. Not 240,000 tonnes of old ones.
Lord Jim O’Neill, AMR adviser to the Prime Minister, has even suggested that drug companies should be forced into researching them – a big stick to be sweetened by cash handouts and incentives if necessary.
Nice one, Jim. Except with 240,000 tonnes regular output, those companies are not exactly strapped for cash.
At 20p for a single 25mg dose of say, amoxicillin, that’s £1.9 billion they’re raking in every year, just from their ka-chunk-ka-chunk machines going round the clock to keep the farmers happy.
In the meantime, resistant bacteria are growing all the time – and getting away with murder.
Which means throwing money at developing new antibiotics is a losing battle anyway. Bacteria always win – so it could be only months, or a best a few years, before the latest wonder-drug also winds up being useless.
And what happens when AMR spreads to shut down agriculture as well? 19 billion chickens, 1.4 billion cattle and 1 billion sheep and pigs suddenly peg off – and the next thing is world famine.
You see, nobody wants to face the elephant in the room. That antibiotics are over. Lifesavers while they lasted, but now they’re finished. Even beginning to kill more of us than they’re saving.
What the money needs to be spent on – agricultural profits and cash incentives combined – is a serious REPLACEMENT. Abandoning antibiotics altogether and developing alternatives like bacteriophages – harnessing VIRUSES to destroy pathogenic bacteria.
Alongside that, we need to jack up our cleanliness levels across the board. Without antibiotics as a safety net for careless and dirty habits, proper hygiene becomes essential. Washing hands whenever possible – removing all health hazards.
Which means sterilising our workplaces too. To protect ourselves from each other as much as from germs. Schools, hospitals, public buildings, restaurants, entertainment places all need the same treatment. The best way to avoid infection is not to expose ourselves to germs in the first place.
Money, money money. It’s a world wide crisis.
Let’s hope those drug companies wake up in time and stop worrying about their 240,000 tonnes.
AMR can wipe them out just as quickly as us ordinary folk.
Imagine World War Three, a Force 5 hurricane and an end-of-the-dinosaurs meteor strike all at the same time.
All caused by the weapons we use against microscopic adversaries we can’t even see – the antibiotics we use to fight pathogenic bacteria.
Amazing creations, antibiotics. Enabling modern medicine work miracles every day.
Except their edge is blunting fast – as canny bacteria mutate to develop resistance to our wonder-drugs – increasingly immune to everything we throw at them.
Antimicrobial resistance or AMR, it’s called. Bacteria impervious to even heavy doses of medication – just another bump in the road to the most successful single-celled living creature of all time – the latest hiccup in 5 billion years of evolution.
Of course, AMR was always going to happen. Bacteria are ultimate survivors – able thrive at temperatures from a freezing 0⁰C to a volcanic 350⁰C – in acidity from near pure water to concentrated battery acid – and if necessary, even without oxygen.
So that messing about in a laboratory for anything except a short-term solution is futile. Alexander Fleming, father of modern antibiotics even said as much in his 1945 lecture accepting the Nobel Prize.
His concern was that the bugs could gain immunity from under-dosing – killing the weakest but allowing the strongest to escape from non-lethal quantities. And with an organism able to divide by fission into new cells in as little as 20 minutes, it was only a matter of time before bacteria found ways.
Tick, tick, tick
They certainly did. Against penicillin, discovered in 1928 with resistant staph emerging in in 1940; tetracycline, introduced in 1950 with resistant shigella in 1959; erythromycin, launched in 1953 with resistant strep occurring in 1968; methicillin in 1960 with resistance in 1962; levofloxacin in 1996 with resistance in the same year; linezolid in 2000 and resistance 2001; daptomycin in 2003 and resistance in 2004.
Today it’s even worse, with some superbugs becoming pan-resistant – responsive to NO antibiotics at all. Small wonder that Dr Dame Sally Davies, England’s Chief Medical Officer, sees AMR as a threat on the same scale as terrorism.
Except that Dame Sally is wrong on the focus, medical AMR is just the tip of the iceberg. Agriculturally, AMR is many, many times bigger – so that, short of a massive alien invasion, antibiotics resistance is quite possibly the biggest challenge ever to the human race.
Check the math.
All in the numbers
In 1950, world population was 2,557,628,654 –the biggest killers were pneumonia and TB, and ploughs on the farm were still drawn by horses.
In 2016, world population is 7,334,771,614, most diseases are completely under control and “factory farms” are highly mechanised.
300% increase in mouths to feed, but the land area to produce the necessary food is still the same. Mechanisation? Sure. GM crops? Let’s face it, farmers have been fiddling with plant breeding for yonks. But three times as much food to eat from the same space, how is that possible?
Right first time, antibiotics.
First used as a growth promoter in 1950 – and today fattening up livestock so much that round the world, 65,000 tons of agricultural antibiotics are swallowed by cows, pigs, chickens and sheep every year.
Yeah, well that’s the OTHER thing antibiotics do – they bulk up animal bodies – twice the size in half the time, on half the feed. From fresh-laid egg to a 1.5 kg supermarket chicken in six weeks – from new-born calf to a full-size Aberdeen Angus steer in one year instead of four.
Feeding the billions
Which is how come farmers can produce food enough for 7.3 billion hungry people from the same land once struggling to feed 2.5 billion.
Put in perspective, and looking at USA beef cattle production only, 1950s technology would require an additional 165 million acres to produce the same amount of beef, an area about the size of Texas – 20% of mainland America.
Or as the Yanks like to boast, 25% of the world’s beef from 10% of the world’s cattle.
It’s antibiotics make this possible – that compensate for the intensive battery-style living, the highly stressful over-crowding, the low level of hygiene from animals living on top of each other, the otherwise unavoidable breeding grounds for animal disease and infection.
Antibiotics in feedstuffs bulk animals up – and also keep them healthy in impossible conditions.
But animals are living metabolisms too – and just like us, the bacteria inside them develop resistance to the constant flow of antibiotics going through their bodies. Billions of times more likely than with humans – there are billions more of them.
Pan-resistance everywhere – antibiotics failure on a colossal scale.
Which means the day is coming when animals fall ill from the living environments they’re in – and with antibiotics no longer able to protect them, disease goes through their thousands and thousands like wildfire. Round the world, other food animals pick up the contagion, sicken and die.
Plants too, suffer the same antibiotics resistance, succumbing to the many types of blight and other disease that fruit, vegetable and grain crops are prone to.
Hunger and famine
Without food, 7.5 billion start feeling hungry.
Never mind AMR, it’s FAMINE that’s going to get us. With no way out, except for a lucky few – in a world surrounded by dying animals and vegetation.
You mean inevitable. Antibiotics resistance is a fact. In medical circles, it is already an emergency. And AMR is already widely reported across agriculture. Total failure is already on the cards.
OK, so several billion of us aren’t going to make it.
Those that do will have to live in a world without antibiotics. So will the animals, out in the open where they belong, not cooped up in jail for us humans. And for every living thing there’ll be no more miracle drugs.
Just as 100 years ago, a simple scratch or mouthful of iffy food could be the last of us. So it’s back to Victorian-style carbolic and scrub, meticulous hand-washing hygiene before and after every activity as our first line of protection.
We will certainly need it. After seven decades of constant antibiotics ourselves – in our medicine and from the foods we eat – our immune systems are weaker than they ever were, less robust, less resilient – our internal gut bacteria ravaged by the same antibiotics supposed to be so beneficial.
Get out of jail free
Which means hygiene around us will be critical too. At home, in our workplaces, in all the enclosed spaces where we group together, vulnerable to each other’s germs and the normal germs on everything around us.
Fortunately, a Hypersteriliser can keep our surroundings sterile – making them safe with misted hydrogen peroxide that kills all viruses and bacteria by oxidation. Kinda like external antibiotics, but without the downside.
And yes, we will fight back. We won’t have antibiotics, but we will have phages – go-getter body VIRUSES that attack harmful bacteria – a therapy that has been used in the former Soviet Union for even longer than antibiotics. Not back to the future, but forward to the past.
Second-best at best. Not even close to antibiotics.
Yeah, but antibiotics are busy going phut.
Too much use, too many expectations, too many chances at getting away with things.
Superbugs are winning
Ask your Doc – AMR – antimicrobial resistance – is the big headache right now. You get injured or seriously ill, what the hell do medics do now?
Because the cupboard is bare – not from running out – from over-use, serious over-use – crikey Moses, agriculture alone round the world uses 65,000 tonnes of the stuff every year.
Mind you, the medical sector is not much better – around a quarter of all antibiotic prescriptions are placebo-type overkill or just plain unnecessary.
No, no, the big problem is that these one-time miracle drugs are beginning not to work any more. The superbugs they’re meant to kill refuse to roll over, dead.
Too smart, see? Immune. Mutated and adapted every generation – which can happen every few minutes – able to resist whatever we throw at them.
Ho, hum, did you feel a breeze just then?
End of the line?
Yeah, an empty cupboard. And no new antibiotics discovered since 1987. No profit in it with a one-off course of three tablets a day for a week. How about one a day, every day for life? THAT’S more like it!
OK, but we’re not dead yet. Antibiotics are still saving lives, still enabling medical experts to do amazing things – brain surgery, organ transplants, joint replacements – right down to C-sections births which are now 1 in 4.
The writing is on the wall though. And the day is fast arriving when our mind-blowing silver bullets run out of fizz. In fact the all-resistant bug – protected by the gene mcr-1 – is already here.
Time to call for back-up. Second best maybe, but better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick.
Say hello to silver, an old friend from way back. 400 BC to be exact – and even then it was old hat – when Hippocrates (he of the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath) taught how to use it for healing wounds and controlling disease.
You’re right, silver is not in the same class as modern antibiotics. But it does have antibiotic qualities of its own.
Prolonged exposure to silver seems to clobber most pathogens eventually – slow perhaps, but effective. Which is why the rich would drink from silver cups and eat with silver cutlery. And why wounded soldiers 100 years ago had their sutures sewn with silver thread to reduce infection.
Their dressings were silver too – local application seemed to work better than internal dosing. And still today, you can get waterproof Elastoplast with antiseptic silver in the would pad.
There is even the possibility that silver could boost the performance of our sagging antibiotics – helping to overcome AMR and get some of their mojo back. Tests already show improvements up to 1,000 times better germ-killing power.
Better still, silver is not just antibacterial, it’s antifungal and antiviral as well. And winners though they still are, antibiotics have never been able to take down viruses.
Thank you, No 2
Second best, yes. But definitely better than nothing.
Put that together with a new awareness of hygiene – necessity will force us to keep ourselves cleaner as the superbugs take over – and our medical future is not so desperate after all.
Any accident, any surgery, any infection, any fever – we’re on our own. Either our immune systems will handle it, or they won’t. Game over.
End of the line
Because now there’s no more failsafe. No last second backup. Real Friday 13th.
No more silly buggers, the Doc can’t save you if your misadventure goes pear-shaped. The cupboard is empty.
Don’t believe it?
Already we’ve got MRSA – methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus – the scourge of every hospital and big bogey of AMR – antimicrobial resistance. This superbug lives naturally in your nose, for goodness sake.
Wipe your face, then touch a cut – and you’re up a gum tree.
And MRSA is just one of our regular 9-to-5 infections. Other AMR stars appearing daily include salmonella, streptococcus, c.difficile, TB, gonorrhoea and e.coli. All of them can kill if we’re not careful – and that doesn’t include the heavy brigade like botulism or cholera.
Over-use and abuse
How did these bacteria get so smart?
Well, we’ve been chucking antibiotics at them on an industrial scale for more than 50 years – plenty of time to learn.
Sure thing, a lot of that is in medicine – we’re a growing cult of pill-poppers. These days the average teenager might be on a course of antibiotics say, five times a year.
Hypochondriac grown-ups are worse – or should that be “cyberchondriacs?” The Internet breeds self-diagnosing adults who demand antibiotics so strongly, there’s doctors and chemists who fear for life and limb.
But agriculture is the real villain. 65,000 tons a year and more to bulk up animals for market – beef, pork, mutton, poultry – right across the board. It’s in plants too –from “natural” recycled animal waste. Over-use big time.
Which also means like it or not – carnivore or vegetarian – we’re all on antibiotics already, absorbed through the food chain. And have been ALL OUR LIVES.
Always read the label, remember? Do not take continuously for more than ten days without consulting a physician.
What the heck, we’ve OD’d all our lives!
No wonder our metabolisms are so different from our grandparents’ – weaker, less resilient, more prone to allergies and minor ailments, ballooning to obesity. Our internal bacteria have mutated so much, we’re hardly the same kind of human beings.
Because if it takes only twenty minutes for a bacterium to adapt and evolve to a new generation, that’s around 438,000 mutations learning how to survive antibiotics since they were first used – they should have got it right by now.
So yeah, antibiotics don’t work any more. And since we’re surrounded by billions and billions of bacteria every second – even colonised inside by over 100 trillion – washing our hands is a start.
Wash ’em off so we don’t infect cuts or swallow anything nasty. Wash, wash, wash.
The sloppy hygiene factor
But there’s a problem, and it’s us.
We touch everything everywhere without thinking of these bacteria. From one second to the next, we never think we’re contaminated. Our hands LOOK clean, so we don’t bother.
Sure, we used to get away with it – the Doc back-stopping us with a load of wonder-drugs. But not any more.
So we’re already in big trouble. From our own sloppy hygiene.
It’s not just hands either. Bacteria are everywhere. On everything, under and behind everything, even inside us. And of course, floating through the air – lighter than smoke or specks of dust – swirling, trailing, riding the smallest breeze, all the way up to 30,000 – higher than Everest.
So as soon as our clean hands touch something, they’re contaminated again.
Repeat and repeat
Which means we’ve got to clean the things we touch. And KEEP CLEANING THEM – because the bacteria keep coming back. Wash, wipe, scrub, it’s a never-ending mission.
Even then, it’s not even half the job. Around 80% of any room we live in is air space to move around in – and there’s no wash, wipe, scrubbing answer for that.
We’re at hazard from each other’s bacteria too – because we’re not all the same. Most of us have weaknesses of some kind or other. So our personal biome – the trailing cloud of bacteria unique to each of us – is trapped and mingles in the air of our work space with everybody else’s.
Not vaporised hydrogen peroxide either – too strong for safety and making everything wet.
Press the button when everybody’s gone for the night, and the mild 6% solution of hydrogen peroxide is IONISED from a microscopic spray into an electrically-charged gas plasma – a super-performing change of state that releases even more antimicrobials – hydroxyl radicals, reactive oxygen species, reactive nitrogen species, ozone, and ultraviolet – every particle alive with energy to disperse everywhere and grab pathogens as they fly.
Forty minutes and the place is sterile. No viruses, no bacteria. Zero germs. Every surface safe. The air totally bio-neutral.
Safe till next time
Of course it starts all over again next morning.
As we all breeze in for the day, each trailing our bio-cloud with us – hands alive with bacteria from the steering wheel, the door handle, the ticket machine, the lift button and the loo seat. Er yes, but soap and water fixes most of that.
Wash, wash, wash – it’s our latest antibiotic – which in case you were wondering means “inhibits the growth of, or destroys, microorganisms.”
Phew! We made it.
Never mind that those antibio-whatsits don’t work any more. We know how to be safe.
That’s right. Germ dodgers, not germ catchers – the kind of people we are now.
Don’t believe it?
OK, off the top of your head, when was the last time you washed your hands?
Be honest, because it’s not a trick question. It might come as a shock if you’re out and about, like most of us are.
Once we get into the day, we’re all wrapped up in what we’re doing. So washing hands isn’t even on the radar – unless of course, we need the loo.
Which means it’s actually possible – as you sit down to a night out in a restaurant – that you haven’t hit soap and water since you left home this morning. Like all of us, busy, busy, busy. Unless our hands don’t LOOK clean, we don’t even think about it.
Sure, we know about germs and things, but we’re not really too worried. Life around us is clean and hygienic most of the time. Fresh, drinkable water. Efficient sewerage. Rubbish regularly taken away. Homes spotless and hoovered once a week. What’s the problem?
Because even if we do come down with some bug, our support system is pretty amazing. Either the chemist can fix us up, or our GP can. Or if it’s serious, there’s A&E. They’ll give us the medicine and we’ll be hunky dory. Antibiotics – boom, what nasty bug?
Yes well, don’t count on it being like that for too much longer.
Antibiotics are rapidly passing their sell-by date and use-by date. A lot of the time they’re past their ineffective-by date as well.
Bacteria are smart, see? With billions and billions of years’ practice at surviving whatever happens to them. A magic pill to bring them down? Sooner or later, they’ll find a way round it. Develop an immunity. Show off their antimicrobial resistance – AMR.
Bye-bye wonder drugs
Exactly the situation that’s crept up on our medical profession, while we don’t even worry a dickie-bird.
It worries the hell out them though, right to the edges of panic.
Because if antibiotics stop working, modern medicine just grinds to a halt. Big operations become impossible – even routine starts looking dodgy.
So that right now, today, it’s possible you could die from a paper cut. Without the medics being able to do a thing to save you.
And it’s already happening.
Last week with all the hoo-hah, you may have missed the news item snuck in under everything else.
About a woman in her 70s who died from carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) – a bug resistant to ALL antibiotics, including carbapenem and colistin, our two super-drugs of last resort.
“… a bad infection from such bacteria can kill you no matter how rich or famous you are, what apps you have on your phone or social media sites you frequent, what kind of walls you build, how many nuclear weapons you have…”
Which is why we’ve got to start being germ dodgers instead of catchers. Our carefree lifestyle won’t let us get away with it any more.
Sloppy hygiene can kill
Make that careLESS lifestyle – with very sloppy hygiene. Because if antibiotics can’t be around to save us, the facts are frightening:
But we live in a world surrounded by germs, which is how our hands get contaminated in the first place. They don’t LOOK dirty – but unless we’ve just washed them, they’re crawling with viruses and bacteria. From door handles, light switches, touchscreens, keys, money – just about everything there is in our lives.
Dodge for our lives
Except we can dodge them too – at least in the enclosed spaces where we live most of the time. And with temperatures hovering around freezing these days, that’s seriously good news.
Yes, we still need to wash our hands – because we keep touching stuff.
But just like some bacteria can resist ALL antibiotics, ionised hydrogen peroxide can destroy ALL bacteria. And all viruses, and all fungi, and all parasites.
Sprayed as mist from a machine called a Hypersteriliser, it penetrates everywhere. Offices, restaurants, classrooms and consulting rooms – oxidising all germs to nothing.
Give it 40 minutes and the place is sterile. No germs to catch, no illness to come down with. Clever dodgers, us – nothing can touch us.
Except, yes it can – as soon as we go outside again, we pick up more germs. Which makes it like brushing your teeth, ideally it gets done daily.
Dodge germs most of the time though, and most of the time you’re safe. Like not going looking for trouble, because for sure we’ll find it.
Meanwhile it’s up to the doctors and experts to come up with alternative recovery medicine if ever we do get sick. Vaccines yes, or maybe phages.
Let’s wish them luck. Who wants to stay indoors when skies are blue and the sun comes out , nudging temperatures into the 30s? Roll on summer!
Sounds all very innocent, doesn’t it? AMR on farms.
Yet within our lifetime, it could be the cause of 5 BILLION deaths – the biggest single calamity in our history.
Three little letters – AMR. Antimicrobial resistance, the increasing immunity of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi to any medicine we throw at them.
Already a global health issue, this week its superbug effect on humans became the focus of world leaders at the United Nations.
The largely British initiative was driven by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, who targeted AMR as “the greatest future threat to our civilisation.”
The real villain
And top of the list of medicines most susceptible to AMR, is our previously unequalled group of miracle wonder drugs – antibiotics.
Because they’re so amazing, antibiotics have become almost the cure-all for any kind of illness or infection.
Major surgery? Yup, they’re essential. And little Jimmy’s cough? Start him on these and come back in a week.
With this kind of “infallible” hype among doctors and patients, they’ve become over-prescribed and over-used in almost a third of all cases – dramatically accelerating the opportunities for bacteria to develop immunity.
More chance to practice, more chance to succeed. Easy-peasy when you’re a versatile organism and high survivor, able to reproduce every twenty minutes
Armageddon in the making
So yes, AMR is a global nightmare. But a midget alongside the Armageddon of AMR on farms.
240,000 TONNES of antibiotics are shovelled into farm livestock every year. Industry will assert it’s to keep animals healthy. Reality is that antibiotics promote growth like nothing on Earth. Animals develop bigger, better and faster for a fraction of the cost and time.
The growth rate is so fantastic that in the 50 years since antibiotics were discovered, world food production has expanded to support a population more than THREE TIMES THE SIZE. And even more amazingly, off exactly the same amount of land – our planet is still as big as it was, half a century ago.
To do this of course, farming has become astronomically more intense. Expanding from the quaint pastoral myth of our childhood to the factory farms of today.
That’s what industrial-scale factory farms are – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Google for images of “CAFO” and you’ll see what we mean. Production so concentrated, it’s like animals herded into an over-crowded block of flats.
Such environments are so unhealthy that antibiotics are vital to keeping animals alive, let alone fattening them up. They compensate for the unnatural and unhealthy conditions – the everyday “veterinary” excuse for an industry that bucks against limiting antibiotics precisely because of AMR.
And as you’d expect, AMR on farms happens on an industrial scale – just like the farms themselves.
No wonder. Bacteria are the oldest and most successful living organisms on the planet. Capable of surviving intense heat, intense cold, and even heavily acid environments. No antibiotic has stood up to them for more than 25 years.
Bash bacteria all you like, they always win. So that factory farms become superbug factories.
Which means that total AMR on farms is a fast-approaching reality. By numbers alone, accelerating faster than among us humans.
And what happens when AMR on farms becomes “pan-resistant” – responsive to no antibiotics at all?
In their concentration camp environments, the animals will sicken and die. Contagion will spread among them like wildfire. Infecting neighbouring farms through contaminated manure, ground seepage and water supply.
Like all epidemics, it will happen suddenly. Overnight, millions of animals will be lost. 19 billion chickens, 1.4 billion cattle, 1 billion sheep and 1 billion pigs. Most of the world’s food supply – gone.
No food. Not for the 7½ billion we are now. Precious little for the 2½ billion we were 50 years ago, before this antibiotics disaster started. A one-way ticket for at least 5 billion of us – famine and death.
But we’re already dying anyway. Because of those same antibiotics.
Yes, from disease caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
And more frighteningly, from the drip-drip sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics we ingest every meal through our food.
All this, and obesity too
Antibiotics fatten up animals. We eat them, we fatten up from the same antibiotics. If not directly, then from their manure used to fertilise crops and other animal feed. Inescapable even if we’re vegetarian. Which is why two thirds of us are already obese.
But there’s a difference. Animals only survive fourteen months before they go to market. Bigger and fatter – a kind of short-term obesity.
We go for the long haul. Living on for decades, getting fatter and fatter, more and more obese. And paying the inevitable price for obesity – asthma, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The long, slow road to painful and miserable death.
The UN meeting wants us to develop new antibiotics, use them more responsibly and cut down on the need for them through better hygiene.
Not good enough if we read the signs.
The ultimate price
Change or no change, all antibiotics will:
Inevitably succumb to AMR, generating killer superbugs
Push increasing numbers of us into accelerating obesity
Unleash AMR on farms, triggering wide-scale disease, rapidly followed by famine
Three outcomes, all ending in death. Our miracle life-savers have become mass killers.
Enough tinkering with antibiotics now.
It’s time our leaders found some serious alternatives.