Before British scientist, Alexander Fleming’s, discovery of penicillin in 1928, getting a bacteria infection could mean death, even with common ailments such as strep throat. The world is a better and healthier place because of antibiotics. However, they present a serious consequence that can possibly undo their usefulness when it comes to their presence in the environment.
When bacteria are continually exposed to antibiotics, they develop resistance to their effects over time. This occurs because of evolution and their short generation time. It becomes a problem when common bacteria such as E. coli develop this resistance. These conditions get harder to treat, increasing the risk of fatalities from ailments that are normally easily treated.
How Resistance Develops
Antibiotic resistance occurs because of the large quantities of antibiotics in the environment. Agriculture is one of the primary sources. Livestock given antibiotics as a preventive or to stimulate growth introduces trace amounts into waterways and the soil. With exposure, the bacteria gain resistance.
The problem that agriculture poses may increase over time due to the rise in factory farms. Large concentrations of animals are more likely to be stressed and at risk for disease. Farmers may find themselves under economic pressure to increase yield, leading to more antibiotic use. The recent ruling by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration barely addresses this problem.
Another source is people. While livestock represent the majority of pharmaceutical use, people take antibiotics and the remnants enter the sewer system. As the population ages, more drugs will enter the water supply system, increasing the probability of antibiotic resistance and the possibility of the development of a super bug.
It is a concern shared by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that the amount of antibiotics entering the environment is sufficient to cause selective pressure, or the development of antibiotic resistance bacteria, making this a plausible possibility.
The solution is two-fold. Controls on antibiotic use in the agricultural industry need to be stricter and not voluntary. In addition, individuals need to rein in their own use of antibiotics. Oftentimes, they are over-prescribed, which contributes to the problem. Removing the source of selective pressure can eliminate the issues they raise.