German officials have determined that contaminated vegetable sprouts are to blame for a massive E. coli outbreak that has killed at least 30 people and sickened thousands more.
This strain of the E. coli bacteria is new, and it is ominously resistant to nearly all antibiotics. It is true that antibiotics are not being used to treat the outbreak because these particular bacteria contain toxins that would be released as the drugs killed the bacteria. But it is also true that overuse of antibiotics created the strain in the first place.
Bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics through natural selection. As they are exposed to antibiotics, those with immunities survive and pass their resistance on to the next generation of bacteria. And if bacteria like E. coli are overexposed to antibiotics, they develop resistance to antibiotics more quickly than researchers can develop new antibiotics.
As the current epidemic illustrates, this is not a hypothetical situation. The World Health Organization estimates that in the European Union alone, more than 25,000 people die of antibiotic resistant bacterial infections each year.
It is imperative that antibiotics are used sparingly and only to treat infections; otherwise, they will lose their efficacy completely.
Thanks to public health campaigns, most people know that antibiotics should be used against bacterial infections and not viruses. What most people don't know is that antibiotics are most overused not in doctor's offices, but in the food industry, where they are widely used to fatten up animals for slaughter – not just to treat illness.
Because of this, antibiotic resistance is so high today that the average U.S. consumer has a one-in-four chance of bringing a multi-drug-resistant strain of staph into the kitchen each time he purchases turkey, chicken, pork or beef. Researchers are warning anyone who will listen that if we do not change the way we produce meat and poultry, it is not a matter of if, but when we will run out of effective antibiotics.
Because overuse of antibiotics carries such serious implications for society, it makes sense to regulate them. And regulations do not need to translate into lower yields for farmers. Since the 1990s, Denmark has regulated and reduced antibiotic use in farm animals, and studies show that meat production was not adversely affected.
We are saddened by the E. coli outbreak in Europe, but we hope it revives an international discussion about antibiotic abuse. Because illnesses spread so easily through travel and trade in today's increasingly globalized world, it is important for countries to tackle this important issue together.
Policymakers need to look at ways to regulate antibiotics. Doctors and patients should exercise restraint and be judicious in their use of antibiotics. Farmers must take responsibility for the methods they use to produce larger animals. And pharmaceutical companies should continue to research promising alternatives to antibiotics.
It is time to stop the complacent overuse of antibiotics. Using them for anything other than treating infection is reckless and irresponsible.
We need to use less before they're useless.