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What do we do after antibiotics?

By Anya Vanecek
Public Health Digital Campaigner

“If you look back through history, most people died the way my great uncle died. Most people didn’t die of cancer or heart disease; the lifestyle diseases that affect us in the West today. They didn’t die of these, because they didn’t live long enough to develop them. They died of injuries… and most of the time from infection, which finished what those injuries began. All of this changed when antibiotics arrived.”

I encourage you to check out this TED Talk from science writer Maryn McKenna, a leading voice against the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conservatively says that 23,000 Americans die each year from antibiotic resistant infections. Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates 700,000 deaths. That’s a lot of people. And yet, says McKenna, “There’s a good chance that you don’t feel at risk." 

But you are.

"More than anything else, we'd lose the confident way we live our everyday lives," McKenna says. "If you knew that any injury could kill you, would you ride a motorcycle? Bomb down a ski slope? Climb a ladder to hang your Christmas lights? Let your kid slide into home plate?"

Antibiotics support most of modern life, including yours. They make life-saving operations possible and are the reason a child carelessly scraping her leg is much less than a parent’s worst nightmare.

And yet, we have and are still wasting antibiotics with shocking carelessness. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in this fact: “On much of the planet, most meat animals get antibiotics every day of their lives not to cure illnesses, but to fatten them up and protect them against the factory farm conditions they are raised in,” says McKenna.

Let me reiterate McKenna’s point. When these drugs are the only means by which we can perform C-sections, biopsies or just slide into home plate, wasting antibiotics on healthy animals is simply unacceptable.

The industry is pushing back hard in defense of its reckless practice. But as meat raised without antibiotics becomes more and more popular, it’s clear Americans aren’t convinced. And they shouldn’t be—the science is clear.

In 1945, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Alexander Fleming warned against overusing and misusing the antibiotic “miracle drug” he discovered. He warned that “negligent use of penicillin change[s] the nature of the microbe” and makes it resistant. And his warning rang true.

Today, as microbes are exposed to constant, nonlethal doses of antibiotics, we have created an effective breeding ground for drug-resistant bacteria. McKenna admonished that “In just 70 years we have pushed a pillar of modern medicine to the brink.” If nothing changes, there’s no doubt it will fall.

Yet, thanks in part to people like Maryn McKenna, awareness of this issue is spreading. The next step is action. We can still avoid the worst realities of a post-antibiotic era, but things must change.

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