Antibiotics have been available for over 70 years. With the development of these drugs, infant mortality rates have dramatically improved and both children and adults in America are less likely to succumb to early deaths due to scarlet fever, diphtheria or tuberculosis. Unfortunately, while antibiotics have true savior qualities, through over or underuse they can become an enemy.
Since 1999, there have been mounting concerns over excessive antibiotic use and the development of “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics. It is estimated that at least 90,000 deaths each year are due to infections resistant to antibiotic treatment. Between 2009 and 2012, the National Institute for Health and the Centers for Disease Control monitored the evolution and spread of drug-resistant superbugs across 35 states. The superbugs resulted in seven deaths in New York, were estimated to have a 40-50 percent mortality rate, and took over a year (387 days) to be eliminated from the survivor’s system.
Researchers, academics, government officials and physicians all postulate that these recent developments and the rise of various diseases are due to our decades of use and overuse of antibiotics both at the food and consumer level. Dr. Martin Blaser, Professor of Medicine and Director of the Human Microbiome Program at New York University, has termed these diseases “modern plagues” and the statistical increases of those suffering from these various diseases is alarming. There has been a 30 percent increase in obesity since 1990. There has been a 50 percent increase in those suffering from asthma between 2001 and 2009. The number of those suffering from diabetes is doubling every 20 years. While rarely encountered 40 years ago, there has been an explosion of individuals suffering from esophageal reflux and the ensuing cancer it causes. Most would agree however that it is not clear whether antibiotics are our savior or enemy, as the benefits of their usage could outweigh these increasingly negative developments.
There is action being taken. In 2012 a federal judge ruled that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) must withdraw and eliminate the use of antibiotics in animal feed especially for non-therapeutic uses. The judge noted that the FDA began an antibiotic eradication program in 1977, which had been abandoned. In January 2013, the FDA began implementing changes in the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals such as cattle, swine, chickens or turkeys and prohibited all off-label animal use of the antibiotic cephalosporin. In April 2013, the FDA determined that there is a major public health threat due to the increasing resistance of bacteria to these medicines. The FDA is hoping that the food industry will voluntarily comply with FDA initiatives, despite the food industry’s dependence on antibiotics to help animals eat better, eat more and gain more weight. What the food industry deems beneficial to the health of the animals seems to be proving to be detrimental to the health of the end consumer.
It seems that the only way to address and possibly reverse the increasing development of superbugs and the threat posed to human health is by a better understanding their development and determine ways to control them. Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have done exactly that. By developing a model to measure the response of bacteria to antibiotics, the researchers were able to show that bacteria can develop a biological timer that allows the bacteria to anticipate and survive a predetermined antibiotic treatment. This discovery should allow future research to determine how best to counteract the bacteria’s survival capacity by alternating treatment dosages or maintaining constant dosage levels of antibiotics to destroy it. What appears clear is the need to avoid the potential for disastrous health problems in the future by developing methods to allow the potentially life-saving qualities of these antibiotic drugs to act as a savior while preventing them from becoming the enemy that destroys us from within.
By Brendie Kelly
Regulatory Affairs Professional Society
Congressional Quarterly Researcher
Food and Drug Administration
Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling Our Modern Plagues. Martin Blaser, PhD. 2014 (pp. 2-6, 167-175)