In “War of the Worlds,” an invincible invasion force of Martians is well on its way to conquering Earth when it is stopped in its tracks and annihilated by an unseen army of bacteria that humans had grown immune to after thousands of years of exposure.
Ironically, less than a century after H. G. Wells wrote his science fiction masterpiece, it is the human race, and not invading aliens, that finds itself increasingly more defenseless from bacterial infections and diseases. The truth, indeed, is stranger than fiction.
How is it that as mankind becomes more scientifically and medically advanced it is in mortal danger from such an unlikely source? Consider the following:
The-overuse and misuse of antimicrobial agents (antibiotics, antimalarials, soaps, and cleansers) have accelerated the natural process by which microbes become resistant to such agents. In poor countries where people cannot afford a complete course of drug therapy or must settle for weaker or cheaper drugs, only the more susceptible microbes are killed off. This “underuse” allows the more resistant forms of the microbes to survive and dominate.
In wealthier countries the “overuse” of anti-microbials is even more problematic. For example, people continue to insist upon using antibiotics to “fight” viral infections such as colds. Since such infections are not bacterial, antibiotics are useless against them.
Each similar misuse of antibiotics does nothing more than allow bacteria another opportunity to build up its resistance. It is estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that a full one-third of the antibiotics taken by Americans on an outpatient basis are unnecessary.
Numerous anti-malarial drugs are no longer effective in large areas of the world. The same is true for standard treatments for gonorrhea and tuberculosis. Antibacterial soaps, lotions and other household products have added to the problem since their widespread use simply eliminates the weakest bacteria and, it is suspected, hastens the evolutionary process by which bacteria develop resistance against antimicrobial agents. In June 2000, the American Medical Association urged the government to strengthen regulations concerning such household products.
Dr. Stuart Levy, Director of the Center for Adaptation and Drug Resistance at Tufts University, also expressed his concerns at a press briefing on infectious diseases held by the AMA on June 1, 2000.
Dr. Levy urged consumers to buy only products without antibacterials and manufacturers to go back to making plain, old-fashioned soap and detergent. The problem, as Dr. Levy sees it, is that antibacterials do not kill all bacteria. Instead, they simply aid in “survival of the fittest,” thereby leaving only the strongest bacteria to survive and multiply.
Dr. Levy’s research disclosed that bacteria resistant to antibacterials are likewise resistant to various antibiotics. Thus, the extensive use of these household products may be contributing to the increase in infections that are difficult or impossible to treat.
As the World Health Organization (WHO) report of June 12, 2000 entitled “Overcoming Antimicrobial Resistance” recognized, the major infectious diseases are gradually becoming impervious to existing drugs, reducing the curative power of “once life-saving medicines to that of a sugar pill.”
Thus, we have reached the point where the very quest for an environment free of “super” germs has become the vehicle by which those dangerous microbials have gained the upper hand.
In addition to all of the problems caused by the inappropriate use of antimicrobial agents by humans is the increasingly serious problem of the use of antibiotics for disease prevention in animals.
For the past several years there has been a growing concern among scientists and medical professionals that the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed is leading to drug-resistant microbes which pose a direct threat to humans.
Scientific organizations and consumer advocacy groups like the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA), Keep Antibiotics Working (KAW), and the American Public Health Association (APHA) have taken up the fight to significantly reduce or ban the use of many antibiotics from use in livestock and poultry feed.
On May 24, 2004, the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) released a report recommending that USDA, FDA, and CDC develop and implement a plan to collect data on antibiotic use in animals.
The study, “Antibiotic Resistance: Federal Agencies Need to Better Focus Efforts to Address Risk to Humans from Antibiotic Use in Animals” (GAO-04-490), also recommended expedited risk assessment for animal antimicrobial drugs deemed critical in human medicine.
APHA had actually advocated such a study in March 2001. APHA is the oldest and largest organization of public health professionals in the world, representing more than 50,000 members from over 50 occupations of public health.
Now, APHA and other advocacy and scientific organizations have petitioned the FDA to ban seven classes of antibiotics from use in livestock and poultry feed. The petition claims that FDA guidelines are being ignored when antibiotics critical to human infection, like tetracycline and penicillin, and disease control are used to treat entire herds of livestock and flocks of poultry.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), more antibiotics are fed to livestock and poultry than are used to treat humans. Those antibiotics are primarily used to promote growth and to prevent diseases caused by overcrowded and unhygienic living conditions. Over half of the antibiotics used are the same as, or related to, those used to treat humans. Scientists and health professionals fear that such drugs will ultimately become useless in treating people.