By Maneka Gandhi*
One of the most frightening germs to invade our bodies is called MRSA -Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is a bacterium that causes infections in different parts of the body and is very difficult to treat because it is resistant to most antibiotics – a superbug. Infections range from sores or boils to serious infections of the bloodstream, the lungs, or the urinary tract. India has thousands of cases.
The spread of superbugs is a serious and growing threat, according to the World Health Organisation’s global report on antibiotic resistance. Once-common treatments for everyday intestinal and urinary tract infections, pneumonia, infections in new-borns, gonorrhoea no longer work in many people. If two million people in the United States are infected annually with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, of which 70,000 died last year, you can imagine how many in India are dying. In the European Union, more than 150,000 people are estimated to contract MRSA each year.
Staphylococcus are common bacteria that live in our bodies (one third of us have staph in our noses) and be treated with antibiotics. But, over the decades, some strains of staph — like MRSA — have become resistant to antibiotics like methicillin, amoxicillin, penicillin, oxacillin.
MRSA is spread by contact. You could get MRSA by touching another person who has it on the skin; or by touching infected objects. 2% of the population carry the bacteria without being infected themselves.
MRSA infections are common among people who have weak immune systems or are in hospitals. Infections can appear around surgical wounds or invasive devices, like catheters or feeding tubes. But, alarmingly, MRSA is also showing up in healthy people who have not been hospitalized. By 2007, 14% of people with MRSA infections contracted them outside of a hospital and these cases have increased. MRSA is also infecting much younger people – an average age is 23.
Antibiotics are till now the frontline warriors against infections that would otherwise have killed people. Without them organ transplantation, stem cell transplants, bone marrow transplantation, cancer chemotherapy, rheumatoid arthritis therapy would be impossible. But bacteria, like any living organism keeps changing to survive. It discovers ways around those medicines invented to kill it. The more you expose a bacteria to an antibiotic, the greater the likelihood that resistance to that antibiotic is going to develop. So the more antibiotics people ingest the more opportunities we create for bacteria to become resistant.
According to Dr Arjun Srinivasan, a director at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, “We’re now in the post-antibiotic era. There are patients for whom we have no therapy. MRSA is one of these drug-resistant bacteria. There are some others that are now also resistant like Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas, E. coli. We’ve had to resort to using older antibiotics that we haven’t used in many years because they were toxic like Colistin which damages the kidneys. But now we’re forced to use it. Till a few years ago the drug companies quickly invented new antibiotics to combat resistant bacteria. But the pace of development of new antibiotics slowed down about a decade ago. Now we have no new antibiotics to use.”
People cause the bacteria in their bodies to become resistant when they take antibiotics for small ailments or viruses or if they do not take the full course. But people who have never taken antibiotics are also suffering from MRSA. How did that happen?
Because of the food they eat. In India 70% of the antibiotics produced are fed to animals. A number of studies show that when you give antibiotics to animals, their meat develops resistant bacteria which go into meat-eaters’ bodies. Pigs carrying methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus were found in 2007. Also when antibiotics are used in animal feed they end up being excreted on the ground contaminating water and soil.
Doctors and veterinary experts agree that antibiotics should not be used for animals. But they continue – because factory produced animals like chickens, pigs, rabbits, cattle are kept and fed so badly that they are sick all the time. Antibiotics are used freely by the poultry industry in order to make chickens fatter in the shortest time.
Antibiotics are a public resource, so they have to be used sensibly. According to Dr Srinivasan, “We should think about antibiotics the way we think about the environment. We all share the air we breathe. If I pollute the air, it has a negative impact on you, just like antibiotics. If I misuse antibiotics, it can have a negative impact on you.” In India there are no checks on how they are used in the meat industry so now we are all in a time where there is literally no medicine to treat the major illnesses that afflict us.
In America the Food and Drug Administration has asked the meat industry to stop using antibiotics. No one has listened. In India, norms have been drawn out for which antibiotics can be used for animals. No one enforces them.
In animal factory farms, pigs with influenza, diarrhoea and other common ailments get antibiotics. Because animals are packed into confinement pens, antibiotics are also used to keep disease from spreading like wildfire. Even animals that are well are dosed as safeguards. Factory farm owners do not reveal the quantities or types of antibiotics they use. In America, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center found that in 2009, 13.1 million kilograms — 80% of the antibiotics sold in the United States that year of which 70% was to boost growth or prevent disease rather than to treat it — were used on animals. India uses even more. The pharmaceutical industry openly advertises antibiotics as growth promoters.
In February 2012, researchers in the Netherlands investigating Staphylococcus ST398 found that it originated in humans, crossed into livestock where it acquired drug resistant genes and then jumped back to humans. ST398 causes 20% of human cases of MRSA in the Netherlands.
In 2012, researchers in America spent a year collecting swabs and meat samples from grocery stores. They found S. aureus on nearly every type of surface. Of meat samples, 30% harboured S. aureus, 11% had S. aureus resistant to multiple antibiotics and 3% carried MRSA. Pork had some of the highest levels of MRSA, whereas meat labelled ‘antibiotic free’ had little or none. In lab tests, 30% of the S. aureus harboured in meat was found to be resistant to tetracycline.
In 1953 Britain legislated to allow antibiotics for farm animals. The government stated that the Americans had found that putting penicillin in pig feed could have a remarkable effect on their growth and hens laid more eggs. MPs like Hugh Linstead opposed this:
“We have not been doing it long enough. I feel, to know what effect it will produce in the long term in herds and on meat, and indeed, on human beings who eat the meat… There is a real danger that if farmers can get hold of penicillin without having to pay the fee of a veterinary surgeon, they will be tempted to use it carelessly and in a widespread way on their flocks.”
Parliamentarian Dr. Barnett Stross, saw the potential for disaster:
“ If pigs are fed in this way, new types of bacteria may evolve and thrive which are resistant to the penicillin which the pigs are eating regularly in their food….should that arise, it would mean first that we should lose the benefits that we are now about to gain. If there be migration of the bacteria to humans we may find ourselves in trouble.”
Sixty years later events have unfolded exactly so.
In 1968 UK’s official inquiry led by biologist, Prof. Michael Swann clearly wanted to ban all non-essential use of antibiotics in agriculture. The government succumbed to industry pressure and allowed farmers to carry on as before.
In 2008, Sir Liam Donaldson, UK’s chief medical officer, warned that bacteria were becoming so resistant to antibiotics that “in some diseases the last line of defence has been reached.” So acute is the situation that the Director General of the WHO, Dr Margret Chan, warned in 2011 of a post antibiotic era, in which there would be no effective treatment for killer diseases, such as typhoid, tuberculosis, pneumonia, meningitis, tetanus, diphtheria, syphilis etc.
Factory farms promote disease. When bacteria and viruses find a supply of hosts to infect among crowded animals, they do not die out. Because of the miserable conditions in which they are reared, factory farmed animals are stressed, depressing their immune systems. Being trucked around heightens the stress and more are infected at the end of the journey than were infected at the outset. If the journey is to a slaughter house, the pathogens migrate to meat.
As chicken, cows and pigs are housed in ever closer confinement and pushed further beyond their natural capabilities; farmers have grown more and more reliant on antibiotics to keep them alive dosing them through their feed or water. Dairy cows are prime targets. In a practice known as “dry cow therapy” they are routinely given antibiotics infusions in their udders to prevent them getting mastitis.
If a disease is antibiotic resistant, the consequence is more severe illness, more hospitalisation and higher death rates. Doctors are forced to use expensive and complicated drugs that have worse side effects. Stop eating meat and lobby for antibiotics to be banned for the meat industry.
About the author: Maneka Sanjay Gandhi is a Member of Parliament and leader of animal welfare movement in India. You may contact her at email@example.com, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org