Antibiotics are widely used on livestock, and humans are paying the price, says Geoffrey Lean.
Posted 03 June 2011, by Geoffrey Lean, the Telegraph, telegraph.co.uk
It is the stuff of nightmares. What if the antibiotics that we have for so long taken for granted were to lose their power to fight infections, throwing us largely back on folk remedies and the body’s own defences?
Back in 1900, just two infectious diseases, pneumonia and tuberculosis, accounted for a quarter of all deaths in America. By 1990, they caused just four per cent – thanks largely to antibiotics. These apparently miraculous medicines have also beaten back a host of other plagues, from meningitis to syphilis, and revolutionised recovery from surgery and burns. Few of us do not have cause to be deeply grateful: only this week, one of my family was rushed to hospital with an infection that could well have proved fatal a century ago, only be to be safely discharged after two days of intravenous antibiotic treatment.
But this week, the nightmare that has been steadily advancing on us, as more and more bacteria become immune to the drugs, came two sizeable steps closer. First, a new strain of highly virulent, antibiotic-resistant E.coli has been racing through Europe, so far infecting more than 1,700 people, and killing at least 18. Possibly arising from the use of manure as an organic fertiliser, it is already the third biggest outbreak in recent times, and may become the largest ever. As Paul Wigley, of Liverpool University’s School of Veterinary Science, puts it: “We are watching bacterial evolution happening before our eyes in a horribly nasty way.”
Then, perhaps worse, scientists announced they had discovered MRSA – which kills hundreds of Britons every year – in British farm animals for the first time. Another new and particularly nasty strain, this drug-resistant bacterium seems to have already spread to hundreds of the country’s dairy farms and infected people in England, Scotland, Denmark and Ireland. Though it poses no danger in cows’ milk, where it was found – because pasteurisation kills it – there are fears that it is being unwittingly spread by farm workers. Experts have been warning about the dangers of antibiotic resistance for 70 years – since almost immediately after the discovery of penicillin itself. Yet we have long been losing the battle against the bugs. In the 1950s and 60s, we developed drugs faster than the bacteria could evolve to beat them; more recently, it has been the other way round. And since antibiotics are cheap and only taken in short courses, companies have had little incentive to find new ones.
Immunity arises, above all, from overuse, but this week’s developments appear to be rooted in their regular use in agriculture. About half of all Europe’s antibiotics are given to livestock, 350 tonnes of them a year in Britain alone. It’s not surprising when, driven by supermarket price pressure, farmers rear animals in their thousands in cramped factory farms where infection spreads rapidly: it’s much cheaper to dose them with drugs than treat them when they fall ill or look after them properly in the first place. Despite its possible implication in the E.coli outbreak, organic agriculture is innocent here: it scarcely uses the drugs at all.
Dutch scientists calculate that between a third and a half of antibiotic resistance in human infections originates from agriculture. In Britain, it is thought to account for more than half of resistant food-poisoning cases. Particularly worrying is the use of modern antiobiotics based on cephalosporins, drugs critically important in human medicine. Sir Liam Donaldson, Britain’s former chief medical officer, has called for them to be banned in agriculture – but instead, their use has more than quadrupled in a decade.
Every country in Europe, except Britain, now regards the growing crisis as so grave that it has forbidden the advertising of antibiotics to farmers. Yet only this winter, the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, flouted calls from the British Veterinary Association to join the European ban, after lobbying from agricultural and pharmaceutical interests.
Perhaps this week’s alarming developments will finally cause our ministers to sit up, take notice, and conclude that preserving the potency of antibiotics is worth a few pence on a pint of milk. But don’t hold your breath.
Now no one can say that they weren’t warned about mobiles
It’s official. The World Health Organisation has finally – in the face of growing evidence that using them for 10 years or more increases the risk of developing brain cancer – classified mobile telephones as a “possible carcinogen”.
This is a particularly important development, since the UN agency has, in the past, been at the forefront of denying any danger. But it has now realised the important effect on public health “as the number of users is large and growing, particularly among young adults and children”.
It can say that again. Five billion handsets are in use worldwide, and the young are especially susceptible to the disease. Since cancers normally take decades to develop, the possibility that some are emerging after 10 years suggests that mobiles may be a particularly potent carcinogen.
The WHO verdict should be a wake-up call for the industry. While no one is suggesting that phones are banned, a tiny fraction of the vast sums lavished on developing new gizmos could certainly be redirected to fund research into reducing radiation levels. This is hardly difficult, considering emissions vary enormously between handsets. It would also help if companies were forced to display radiation levels prominently. If the industry refuses, it runs the risk of having to pay much greater compensation than even the cigarette companies. And, now, no one can plead ignorance.
The Duchess makes Hay and goes green
My best hour at the Telegraph Hay Festival was spent not listening to one of the many literary superstars on display, but talking in the Telegraph tent with a group of eager Welsh teenagers about careers in writing. So it is great that the festival’s organisers are about to increase their work with young people dramatically.
Extraordinarily, in this supposedly dumbed down age, Hay brings tens of thousands of people every year to a wontedly wet field in wildest Wales to talk about ideas. But the young people who come are usually the children of those who care about books anyway. So from next spring, the festival is to take its mind-expanding mission to schools in the depressingly disadvantaged areas that still dot the principality.
The Scribblers programme will bring 10,000 pupils, aged 12 or 15, to universities around Wales for a day of meeting and talking with well-known authors, having their horizons widened at ages when they are making crucial choices about their future education. These “Hay days” will concentrate on climate change and other environmental issues, as “the biggest challenges they are likely to face in their lives”.
The Duchess of Cornwall turned up to launch the programme – and to read Dog Loves Books to children at the festival – as well as stocking up on chocolate brownies. As patron of the National Literacy Trust, it’s very much her bag, while all that greenery (and perhaps the brownies) will doubtless please her old man, too.