When we think of infectious diseases today, our minds immediately turn to viruses, and to the coronavirus in particular.
But there is another category of infectious disease that is responsible for more than 700,000 deaths globally every year — and could be responsible for as many as 10 million deaths a year by 2050, warns the World Health Organization.
We’re referring to drug-resistant bacteria.
In the 1960s, with the advance of antibiotic medicines, many scientists predicted that we would never see widespread, deadly bacterial diseases again.
But there was one thing the scientists didn’t count on: that the same antibiotics needed to treat people would be liberally administered to chickens, turkeys, pigs, cows and even fish in animal agriculture.
In factory farms — where 98 percent of our meat is produced and where thousands of animals are crammed together in unsanitary conditions — farmers routinely give their animals antibiotics to stem the spread of infectious disease.
These same farmers also noticed that animals, when given antibiotics, tend to grow faster.
As a result, approximately 80 percent of the antibiotics in the U.S. are given to farm animals, not to people, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
This has made a mockery of the predictions that the era of bacterial diseases had ended.
Overuse of antibiotics for human prescriptions has certainly contributed to antibiotic resistance. But because literally tons of antibiotics are being used in animal agriculture, the role of the meat and dairy industries in contributing to the problem is of serious concern.
Writing in the journal of the American Society of Microbiology, two Tufts University microbiologists warn:
“Each animal feeding on an antibiotic becomes a factory for the production and subsequent dispersion of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
Indeed, in response to the overapplication of antibiotics, bacteria have developed resistance to some of the most desperately needed medications.
Pathogens that can cause serious medical problems and even kill — such as tuberculosis, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, and hospital-acquired infections — have now become resistant to a wide range of antibiotics.
Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have warned that the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era in which common infections could once again kill. Even common procedures like dental work and hip and knee replacements could become downright dangerous.
“A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it,” warns Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization from 2016-2017. “Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.
“Antimicrobial resistance is on the rise in Europe, and elsewhere in the world. We are losing our first-line antimicrobials. Replacement treatments are more costly, more toxic, need much longer durations of treatment, and may require treatment in intensive care units.
“For patients infected with some drug-resistant pathogens, mortality has been shown to increase by around 50 per cent.”
When asked what is driving this alarming rise in drug-resistant pathogens, Chan first mentioned the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture.
Not surprisingly, researchers are finding that, in many cases, drug-resistant pathogens are appearing in farms, not just in human settings.
This is another cause for concern, because humans are vulnerable to many of the same diseases that predominate in factory farms — such as e.coli, salmonella and campylobacter.
It seems unlikely that the U.S. federal government will impose meaningful restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture, as this problem has been building for years without a meaningful regulatory response.
It is up to us as consumers to stop giving our money to the meat, dairy and fish industries, which are posing a dangerous threat to human health and increasing the risk of a bacteria-driven pandemic.
To learn how to separate yourself from these industries, please join our Plant Pathways program.
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