Tina K. Russell

August 7, 2008

Overuse of antibiotics

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tina Russell @ 2:19 pm

Cases – Isolation Fights Drug-Resistant Organisms, but at a Price – NYTimes.com
Like the better-known MRSA, VRE is a so-called multidrug-resistant organism, able to survive an assault from powerful antibiotics. Half a century ago these bugs did not exist; a decade ago they were rare; today, nearly 30 percent of the Enterococcus bacteria collected from cultures in hospitals are VRE, and 60 percent of the Staphylococcus aureus are MRSA.

Their emergence is an unintended consequence of our use (and overuse) of antibiotics. Hardy organisms like MRSA evolve to withstand the drugs; then, through vectors like the unwashed hands of health care workers, they hitch a ride from patient to patient, hiding like terrorists among the natural bacteria that all humans harbor.

And when a severely ill patient is further compromised by tubes in a vein, the bladder or the lung, the bacteria flourish in defiance of the usual treatments, leading to infections of the urinary tract, bloodstream and lungs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 1.7 million hospital infections a year, resulting in nearly 90,000 deaths, costing the health system more than $11 billion.

Our overuse of antibiotics really bugs me. We should not use antibacterial soap for this reason, and yet soap companies loudly proclaim their antibacterial soaps to be so, because we reasonably take that to mean they are safer, when they are vastly more dangerous. (The same goes for “hand sanitizer” stuff. Please, find a sink.) Antibiotics are valuable, life-saving weapons against infectious disease, but the more you use them, the less effective they are. This is why you should not use them unless you really need to, so, not when washing your hands, washing your table, or fighting a cold.

Of course, one problem is that we get antibiotics in us anyway through our meat, because factory farms pack their animals in so tightly that the only way to keep them from keeling over from disease is to pump them full of antibiotics. This is basically a breeding ground for deadly new diseases and a public health disaster waiting to happen. That’s why the stuff about “free range” and humane care of farm animals is actually really relevant: if the impulse to be kind to animals doesn’t motivate you enough, remember that how kind you are to animals is reflected in how kind they are to you when you eat them. (It’s also why I don’t like self-righteous condemnation of meat-eaters. They’re the ones with the power to make the industry more humane, and so they must be included in any movement to do so.)

I’m rather more concerned about antibiotics than rBST, but it seems to be easier for farms to stop using that one hormone and loudly advertise that than change the entire way they do business for the safety of the public. Sigh…

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