Infections Are Back With A Vengeance (Because antibiotics have been abused)

A few decades ago the development of antibiotics led many people to believe that the threat offered by infectious diseases had, to a large extent, been conquered.

But a combination of greed and stupidity has changed all that. The effectiveness of antibiotics has been dramatically weakened by three main groups: the companies making them, the medical profession and the farming industry. Each of these groups has acted irresponsibly and dangerously. Since they cannot possibly have been unaware of the impact their actions would have, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the effectiveness of antibiotics has been deliberately destroyed for short-term profit. The drug companies, the medical establishment and the farming industry will together be responsible for millions of deaths around the world. The politicians who have stood to one side and allowed all this to happen must share the responsibility.

During the last two decades simple, widespread infections have been striking back and re-establishing themselves as serious threats to our health - as serious as cancer and heart disease.

In 1952, virtually all infections caused by staphylococcus could be cured by penicillin. But just 30 years later a worrying 90% of patients infected with the staphylococcus bug needed treatment with other antibiotics.

Western doctors didn't worry about this because they had other antibiotics to prescribe. With remarkable arrogance the medical profession in America and Europe assumed that it could always stay one step ahead of the bugs.

What many doctors failed to realise was that yeasts, fungi and bacteria have been producing antibiotics more or less since time began. They use the antibiotics they make to protect themselves. Other yeasts, fungi and bacteria mutate naturally in order to protect themselves against those antibiotics. Through a mixture of ignorance and arrogance doctors speeded up the rate at which bugs acquired resistance by spreading antibiotics around with reckless abandon.

In order to try to stop bacteria causing so many deaths in hospitals, doctors started routinely giving antibiotics to all the patients whom they thought might be at risk - and this category naturally included all those patients who were destined for surgery.

The prescribing doctors either didn't realise or didn't care that by dishing out antibiotics so freely they were giving the bacteria a greatly increased chance of acquiring immunity.

Staphylococcus has not, of course, been the only bug to become resistant and the western medical establishment, constantly afraid of offending the drug companies, has done everything possible to stifle my protests and warnings about the consequences.

Today the future is truly bleak. Infectious diseases which we thought we had conquered are coming back with a vengeance. More and more people are dying of simple, uncomplicated infections. The bugs are getting stronger. And our ability to zap them is diminishing almost daily.

Now, one in six prescriptions is for an antibiotic. My educated guestimate is that between half and three quarters of all these prescriptions are unnecessary or inappropriate.

Doctors over-prescribe because they like to do something when faced with a patient - and prescribing a drug is virtually the only thing most of them can do. Prescribing a drug is also a defence against any possible future charge of negligence (on the basis that if the patient dies it is better to have done something than to have done nothing).

But the main reason for the over-prescribing of antibiotics is, without doubt, the fact that doctors are under the influence of the drug companies. The makers of the antibiotics want their drugs prescribed in vast quantities. It makes no difference to them whether or not the prescriptions are necessary. There is now no doubt that many of our most useful drugs have been devalued by overuse and are no longer effective.

Doctors regularly hand out these potentially life-saving pills for minor coughs and infections that would have got better anyway within days. Colds and flu are caused by viruses - which are not susceptible to antibiotics.

The unnecessary antibiotics we have swallowed by the ton have weakened our general resistance to infection and paradoxically, strengthened the power of the bugs.

The existence of many antibiotic-resistant organisms is the main reason why infections are such a major problem in hospitals. Alarmingly, at least 1 in 20 of all hospital patients will pick up an infection in hospital - mostly urinary tract, chest or wound infections. (Bizarrely, the spread of these antibiotic-resistant organisms is mostly caused by doctors and nurses failing to wash their hands often enough.)

At first these new superbugs only caused problems within hospitals - where they caused many deaths among patients whose immune systems had been compromised by other diseases or by physical or mental stresses. It was in hospitals that many superbugs first started to appear but they are now appearing outside hospitals.

The problem is so great that the extra costs incurred when doctors have to prescribe increasingly expensive antibiotics is beginning to add an enormous burden to all those responsible for providing health care facilities. In America, the extra cost of dealing with antibiotic-resistant organisms is many billions of dollars a year.

Salmonella became a more or less untreatable disease in 1993 and now poses a serious health threat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture the best part of a million people are made ill every year by salmonella-infected eggs.

The big problem with salmonella bacteria is that some strains are already resistant to ampicillin, streptomycin, tetracycline, sulphonamides and chloramphenicol. It won't be long before some salmonella bacteria are resistant to all known antibiotics. When that happens the death rate from salmonella will rocket.

Most salmonella antibiotic resistance develops on farms where half of all antibiotics produced are used (I will explain why in a moment or two). Naturally, the salmonella bacteria in chickens affect the flesh of the birds as well as their eggs. And the bacteria can easily spread from chicken flesh to other products.

Unless the mass use of antibiotics on farms is stopped salmonella poisoning will pose a great threat to future generations.

It is the overuse of antibiotics by farmers which is one of the main reasons why infectious diseases are making a dramatic comeback.

Astonishingly, considerably more than half of all the antibiotics sold are given by farmers to healthy animals.

Why do farmers give their animals so many antibiotics?

Well, to start with, farmers give some antibiotics to animals to help prevent (and treat) disease. Animals on modern western farms are exceptionally susceptible to disease because they are kept in overcrowded conditions and they are constantly highly stressed. Antibiotics help to keep sick animals alive long enough to be slaughtered and fed into the food chain. Antibiotics are also given because they help to stop diseases spreading quickly among animals who are kept in cramped and entirely unnatural conditions. When animals live in hideously confined quarters it is nigh on impossible to stop infections spreading without using antibiotics.

Many American and European farmers also routinely put antibiotics into the feed they give their animals to prevent infections developing and the antibiotics that are dished out in this grossly irresponsible way are often the same antibiotics that are becoming dramatically less effective in the treatment of human diseases.

But farmers don't just give antibiotics to animals in order to deal with disease. They also put antibiotics into their animal feed in order to promote growth. Antibiotics increase the muscle bulk of animals - and therefore increase their value and the farmer's eventual profit.

The process by which antibiotic resistance develops on farms is simple to explain. When animals are given antibiotics the bacteria in their intestines build up an immunity to those antibiotics. Those antibiotic-resistant organisms then pass on to farmers and others who have contact with the animals. They pass into the environment (even though most animals are denied access to fields, their faeces and urine still reach the environment when they are dumped onto fields or discharged into rivers). And, of course, the antibiotic-resistant organisms pass into the food chain directly when animals are killed, chopped up and eaten by humans. When milk in the US was tested, researchers identified 52 different antibiotic residues.

Between them, doctors and farmers have put us all at risk. Around the world, millions of innocent people will die because of their reckless stupidity.

Copyright Vernon Coleman 2011 Copyright Vernon Coleman 2011