U.N. warns: Antibiotic use in farming is spreading via waterways, driving the superbug resistance crisis, putting millions of lives at risk

Monday, January 1, 2018
By Paul Martin

by: Tracey Watson
Monday, January 01, 2018

When Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic – penicillin – in 1928, the world of medicine was changed forever. His discovery led to the development of medicines that could treat cuts, abrasions and bacterial infections, saving millions, if not billions, of lives. Sadly, however, misuse and overuse of antibiotics have fostered the development of antibiotic resistance by superbugs that are immune to even our most powerful antibiotics. We are now facing what experts call the “post-antibiotic age,” where even minor wounds can kill once more.

Statistics indicate that close to 2 million Americans are currently infected with drug-resistant bacteria each year, resulting in the deaths of around 23,000 people. And these figures are likely to soar in the near future.

Experts have identified three key driving factors behind the antibiotic crisis: Overuse of antibiotics by humans; misuse of antibiotics, including to prevent illness in farm animals; and a lack of interest by pharmaceutical companies in developing innovative new antibiotics to treat these deadly bacteria.

Doctors have been working hard to educate their patients about only using antibiotics for bacterial infections, not viruses, and even then, only when truly necessary. Nonetheless, to start turning the tide of the antibiotic crisis, far more emphasis will have to be placed on addressing farming practices.

Sustainable Table reports that fish, poultry and livestock in this country are routinely administered antibiotics to prevent illness and to promote growth. In fact, 80 percent of all antibiotics administered in the United States are given to farm animals. Only a measly 20 percent of antibiotics consumed annually actually go to humans.

The U.K.’s Daily Mail recently revealed that a report by the United Nations (U.N.) is now warning that, in addition to being fed directly to animals, these antibiotics are also ending up in the world’s waterways, and from there, spreading far and wide. This is escalating the antibiotic crisis and putting millions of lives at risk. (Related: Fight antibiotic-resistant superbugs with these six powerful and natural alternatives to antibiotics.)

“Around the world, discharge from municipal, agricultural and industrial waste in the environment means it is common to find antibiotic concentrations in many rivers, sediments and soils. It is steadily driving the evolution of resistant bacteria,” warned Erik Solheim, the U.N.’s environment chief.

The U.N. is urging that antibiotics only be prescribed as a last resort in humans, and never in animals.

“So far, a lot of attention has focused on reducing antibiotic use, and that is a key factor, but it’s equally important to understand more about how resistance is spread through our natural environments, so that we can find ways to prevent that happening,” noted William Gaze, an associate professor at the University of Exeter, who contributed to the report.

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