Is corporate greed killing modern medicine? Animals, drugs and superbugs
09 February 2017
Imagine a world where a small cut could kill you or where treatments such as chemotherapy or caesarean sections would be too dangerous to perform. That could be our all-too-near-future if we don't take action. Bacteria across the world are developing resistance to antibiotics, leaving us with no treatment for previously curable diseases, and no way of preventing infections in patients that could kill more people than cancer globally within the next three decades. The more antibiotics are used, the more the bacteria adapt – and the less effective the medicine becomes.
In the debate on climate change, there's a scientific consensus that we need to take urgent action to avoid catastrophe. Yet the UN process to establish a global strategy to tackle climate change has been watered down to little more than a statement of intent and the USA has elected a climate-denying business tycoon as its president.
The antibiotic resistance crisis fits the same pattern. The scientific community is sounding the alarm bells and civil society organises to mobilise a response. Leading scientists are warning that 300 million people could die in the next 35 years as a result of antibiotic resistance. But no political action is taken and there’s little media interest in the impending downfall of modern medicine. This political inaction is no coincidence but a result of the rise of ever more powerful corporations that manage to throw a spanner in the wheel of any political process that might threaten their profits.
Fingers pointed at industrial farming
So what’s at the heart of the problem? Experts are increasingly pointing at rampant use of antibiotics in agriculture as the key contributor to the problem.
Globally, more than two thirds of antibiotics are fed to livestock instead of humans. Most of them go to entire herds in order to prevent rather than cure diseases or to promote faster growth.
At the heart of the problem is way we produce food today. Industrial farming keeps livestock in such unhealthy conditions that they would become ill without treatment. But rather than improving conditions, big farms feed antibiotics to their livestock to avoid diseases, even though feeding a constant low dose of antibiotics to animals creates the perfect environment for bacteria to develop resistance. These resistant bacteria can then enter the food chain and spread across the human population.
It’s shocking that there is no decisive political action on this impending public health crisis. Both the big agribusinesses using the antibiotics and the pharmaceutical companies producing them are lobbying hard to avoid restrictions that could hit their profits – and they are very effective at doing so.
From trade negotiations to the running of public services, short-term corporate profits are increasingly taking priority over our long-term health. The words of business representatives carry more weight than scientific experts: in the UK, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate is responsible for regulating farm use of antibiotics, but it is also 77% funded by granting licenses to businesses. This raises the question of how easy it is for a government institution to regulate if it goes against its own economic interest.
Why should we live in a world where people are killed by simple bacterial infections because shareholders needed higher returns? Ending the industrial use of antibiotics in animals could and should be a first step to an urgent overhaul of our entire food system so that it can start to meet the needs of people rather than profit.
“Doctors facing patients will have to say, ‘I’m sorry - there’s nothing I can do for you… With few replacement products in the pipeline, the world is heading to a post-antibiotic era in which common infections.. will once again kill.” (World Health Organization director general, Margaret Chan)
Antibiotics were discovered in the early 20th century and have revolutionised modern medicine. Before antibiotics simple cuts could be deadly, and any operation would carry big risks of deadly infections. Several new classes of antibiotics have been developed in the last 100 years, but as bacteria evolve to adapt to survive new antibiotics, we’re locked in a constant arms race. New antibiotics have to be restricted to cases where bacteria are resistant to all other drugs, but no new types of antibiotic has been developed in over 30 years, as their development is not sufficiently profitable for pharmaceutical companies. To win the fight against resistant bacteria, we need to break the link between corporate profits and the development of essential medicines.
We’re facing a post-antibiotic era as more and more bacteria develop resistance to the drugs we use to treat infections. Without working antibiotics, simple infections could become deadly killers and routine operations could become too dangerous to perform.
We need to take urgent action to curb farm use of antibiotics. Earlier this year, a study found drug-resistant E.coli in one out of four chicken samples from the seven biggest supermarket chains in the UK. A good first step is to make sure supermarkets clean their supply chain of producers that over use antibiotics. Take action here.
This article was taken from the January 2017 issue of Ninety Nine magazine. You can read the current issue online here.