By Ewan Jones
Frustrated with a lack of action in regards to the threat posed by antibiotic resistance, 11 of the UK’s most senior medics have composed a letter imploring the government to implement changes in how antibiotics are used in the farming industry. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that more than 90,000 Britons will die before 2050 unless steps are taken to prevent the further spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, describing this issue as “one of the biggest threats to modern medicine”.
Antibiotics work by disrupting the activity of bacteria, inhibiting their growth and spread, or simply killing them directly. The use of antibiotics allowed the development of radical medical treatments that were previously incredibly risk-heavy due to the risks posed by bacterial infection, revolutionising the medical field and paving the way for the miraculous treatments we have today.
However, antibiotics have a serious weakness that arises from a simple trait of evolution: random mutation. Whilst antibiotics kill almost all bacteria, mutations in the genes of a tiny fraction of bacteria can allow them to survive an onslaught of genocidal antibiotics.
These antibiotic-resistant bacteria are then in a prime position to survive and reproduce, thriving in the empty space left by their fallen comrades. The resistant bacterium’s offspring will also contain the gene granting antibiotic resistance, leading to the eventual formation of huge colonies of bacteria that cannot be killed by conventional antibiotics. Even worse, bacteria have an incredible ability to pass on their genes to surrounding bacteria through the use of short, circular segments of DNA called plasmids. Once another bacterium ‘picks up’ the plasmid it is then able to express the gene it codes for (for example, the antibiotic resistance gene). The combination of these two processes is the driving force behind antibiotic resistance, and in order to tackle the threat it poses, serious changes need to be made at the governmental level, especially in regards to antibiotic use on farms.
Farmers will often dose all of their animals with antibiotics at the first sign of an individual animal falling ill. This is a highly dangerous activity, as the more antibiotics are used, the faster antibiotic-resistant bacteria are able to develop.
The letter signed by the senior medics calls on a complete ban on this preventative use of antibiotics on farms, which European Union countries will be implementing by 2022. The UK government, however, will not be obliged to commit to doing the same following Brexit, hence the letter’s necessity.
In our daily lives, we can help stall the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by holding our doctors accountable for the treatments they grant us. A recent survey showed that 38% of people expect to receive antibiotics when visiting a GP, even if they are afflicted by an illness that cannot be treated by their use (such as viruses like the flu, which are not bacteria-caused).
The current climate of antibiotic use is one of rampant overprescription, which contributes greatly to the spread of resistant bacteria. We need to accept that antibiotics are not a ‘cure-all’ and that, in many cases, no antibiotics or a delayed prescription if symptoms do not improve is the way forward. The UK government would do well to pay heed to this warning letter and follow in the footsteps of other governments around the world to prevent this looming public health crisis.
Photograph: NIAID via Flickr