The burger you're grilling this weekend might be fueling our greatest health crisis
A woman showed up at a health clinic with a urinary tract infection. Another day, another case of cranberry juice, right? Nope. The entire world is freaking out about this poor woman's 'nethers — and for good reason.
This was no run-of-the-mill UTI, epidemiologists said, thanks to the type of bacteria that caused the infection: A "superbug" that has never been seen in America before and is resistant to all known antibiotics, including colistin, the drug doctors use when absolutely no other drug will work.
If you're not worried yet then you're not paying attention. Experts have been warning us for years that just such an apocalypse is coming, with the World Health Organization even calling it one of the greatest health crises we've ever faced. If this antibiotic-resistant superbug were to spread, it would take the world back to a time when there were no antibiotics, said Tom Frieden, MD, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It is the end of the road for antibiotics unless we act urgently," he said.
What does the end of the road look like, exactly? Nearly everyone alive today can't remember a time before antibiotics, starting with the discovery of penicillin in 1928. We've forgotten that pre-antibiotics, any infection had the potential to be deadly. People died of simple things like paper cuts and knife nicks, not to mention all the serious infectious illnesses like bacterial meningitis, tuberculosis and pneumonia. STDs like syphilis were a death sentence. Women routinely died in childbirth and one in ten children died before their first birthday. But in the 100 years since the advent of modern antibiotics, maternal death rates dropped 99 percent and childhood mortality dropped 90 percent.
And now, the tide is turning back against us again. "We know now that the more we look, the more we are going to find," Frieden said in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control says that more than two million people are infected by drug-resistant germs each year, and 23,000 die of their infections, with the biggest killer being the diarrhea-causing bug C. difficile. In addition, the World Health Organization says drug-resistant cases of diarrhea, sepsis, pneumonia and gonorrhea are infecting millions more worldwide.
There are things we can do. The WHO has outlined a six-point plan to help stop this problem while we still can. The biggest thing that needs to happen is the discovery of new antibiotics, but unless you're a microbiologist that's probably not in your wheelhouse. What we ordinary people can do, however, is stop using antibiotics when we don't need them. That means ditch your antibacterial soaps, toothpaste and face wash and don't beg your doctor for an antibiotic prescription when you just have a cold.
But do you know the biggest use of antibiotics? Over 80 percent of all antibiotics go to livestock and that is a massive part of the problem. "Sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics are used in animal-rearing for promoting growth or preventing diseases. This can result in resistant microorganisms, which can spread to humans," according to the WHO.
You can (and probably should) purchase meat and dairy from animals that have not been treated with antibiotics. In the US, the "organic" label ensures that the animals haven't been fed antibiotics, and "grass-fed" or "pastured" meats will often do the same (check the label or talk to the company to be sure). Many local producers will also adhere to a policy similar to humans of only using antibiotics on very sick animals which are then kept out of the food chain until they test clean.
So, before you fire up the grill this Memorial Day, take a closer look at your burgers.