The World Health Organization (WHO), a worldwide body responsible for advising governments on all things health, has recently taken aim at the meat industry. It is a common practice, in many developed countries for food industries to give antibiotics to all livestock, regardless of their health. WHO is calling on nations to stop doing this, citing the risk of mass antibiotic administration on general world health.
Antibiotics have been used for decades to treat bacterial infections. Medicines such as amoxicillin, azithromycin and doxycycline are routinely prescribed clinically. Along with humans, animals are also, if not even more so, susceptible to bacterial infections. Prior to the creation and wide use of antibiotics, whole farms could be wiped out by a particularly nasty infection. Because of this, farmers started to give their livestock doses of antibiotics to prevent this.
Decreased disease was not the only benefit farmers found when they started administering antibiotics. Animals treated were found to not only live longer but also grow larger compared to non-treated controls and the meat from the former had a longer shelf life than meat from the latter. From an economic standpoint, it makes sense for large-scale operations in the meat industry to non-selectively treat all animals with antibiotics.
Yet year after year, scientists are discovering new consequences of systemic antibiotic administration. It has been known since the 70s that antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains could become prevalent as a consequence of antibiotic treatment. The notion that antibiotics kill all bacteria is an assumption that is incorrect. By administering doses, resistant bacteria will survive and proliferate.
The poster child for this phenomenon is Clostridium difficile, commonly referred to as C. diff. Resistant to antibiotics, infections often occur in people currently taking antibiotics and represent a fear of what could happen if a deadlier bacteria, for example Anthrax, became resistant to antibiotics as well.
Why does treating animals with antibiotics affect humans? It has been proven multiple times that resistant strains of bacteria can be found in the meat of treated livestock. If, for instance, said meat was not properly cooked and ended up infecting a person, the fallout could be great. The other scarier scenario would occur if a resistant pathogen is spread from animal to animal and eventually gained the ability to infect humans. This could result in a superbug: a highly pathogenic and antibiotic-resistant bacterium. Such can already be seen in some types of pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
Bacteria are found naturally in all living things. Our microbiome, or the collection of microorganisms in and around us, is more numerous than our own human cells. By disrupting this natural phenomenon, studies have shown negative effect on digestion, immunocapability and overall health.
In a particularly relevant paper for this time of year, published by Yale University and Kyushu University, researchers found a significant decrease in immune response in mice infected with influenza virus while being administered antibiotics. The conclusions drawn from this paper were that the microbiome diversity assisted in immune function and when this was compromised, so was an organism’s ability to fight infections.
It could be hypothesized that, through mass antibiotic treatments in livestock, particularly chickens, influenza’s natural habitat, a decreased immune response leads to the pervasiveness of the virus in the chicken. The longer the virus can live and mutate in the chicken’s intestines, the greater the likelihood that the virus could eventually infect humans. This is only a hypothesis, but the complete impacts of mass antibiotic administration are not fully understood and the more scientists investigate, the worse the outcome appears to be.
While antibiotics have many benefits, particularly in the livestock industry, mass-utilization of drugs to healthy animals should not be continued. If an animal was to come down with a bacterial infection, antibiotics followed by probiotics, would be an appropriate measure for a farmer to take. However, the nonselective utilization across all animals presents a serious world-health risk and could result in a pandemic that the medical community would be unable to treat.
David Csordas is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.