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PROBLEM: Overuse of Antibiotics

Excessive use and misuse of antibiotics has led to widespread antibiotic resistance—approximately 100,000 people die each year from hospital-acquired infections of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.1

In part, this is due to the carelessness of patients. Some do not finish the full course of antibiotics they were prescribed, which kills only the weakest of the bacteria, allowing the more resistant bacteria to survive and reproduce. Others use antibiotics to treat viruses in a useless attempt to get better, quicker. But antibiotics are ineffective against viruses because unlike bacteria, viruses are not “alive” and therefore are not affected by an antibiotic treatment. And any time antibiotics are misused, it inadvertently creates a selective pressure that leaves only the strongest of bacteria alive to procreate. Eventually, this leads to various strains of bacteria that are resistant to traditional antibiotics, forcing scientists to create more and more drugs that are one step ahead of the rapidly evolving bacteria.

Antibiotic resistance is a very real problem. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was once only found in hospitals, but is quickly becoming an issue for people in every part of the community.2 Drug-resistant forms of tuberculosis are becoming increasingly common, and they are much more difficult, expensive, and risky to treat than forms that are not resistant.3 But it’s not just antibiotics given to human beings that are contributing to this problem.

In 2001, 84% of all antibiotics were used for livestock, and the majority of that was to promote growth, not treat illness.4 Just as in human beings, the overuse of antibiotics leads to resistant strains of bacteria. Bacteria originating from livestock are easily transferred to the general public through the grocery store.  For example, Campylobacter is carried by poultry into the homes of unsuspecting consumers and infects 2–4 million people every year, so antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter is a serious public health concern.5 Bacteria can develop cross-resistance, meaning that their resistance to one drug causes them to be resistant to similar drugs. This is a problem with vancomycin, which is used as a last resort for life-threatening infection. More and more vancomycin-resistant strains of bacteria are showing up in Europe because of the use of avoparcin, a chemically related drug, in agriculture.6

These antibiotics aren’t just in the livestock; they’re also in drinking water due to run-off from agricultural operations.