Friday, July 8, 2011

Antibiotic Resistance from Chickens?

Image by Martin Cathrae

(For more information on this subject please read our previous post: Antibiotic Resistance: Bacteria are winning the battle against antibiotics faster than we can invent them.)

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US have released an article in their journal (Emerging Infectious Diseases) about antibiotic resistance. In this article, scientists link the overuse of antibiotics in livestock to an increase of resistant strains of bacteria (E. coli) in animals and also to the transmission of resistant strains to people. In this study, approximately 80% of all chicken meat samples contained drug resistant strains of E. coli... the same strains found in almost 75% of people in the study who got sick from E. coli.

This study was conducted in the Netherlands, where a rather unique situation allows for careful study of drug resistant bacteria. In the Netherlands, antibiotic use in humans is highly regulated and among the lowest in Europe. However, antibiotic use in livestock (chickens, cows, pigs, etc.) is among the highest in Europe. This means that scientists can more easily study the transmission of drug resistant bacteria from animals to humans, since there is very little resistance developed through traditional human medical care (i.e. over prescribing antibiotics or misuse). In fact, several studies have been done in the Netherlands in recent years studying this very phenomenon.

As the techniques for identifying genetic matches for resistant bacteria improve and further studies are released, more and more evidence seems to indicate that the resistant strains of bacteria are being transmitted from animals to humans in greater frequency than previously imagined. While meat cooked properly will kill the majority (if not all) of the bacteria in meat products, there are other vectors of transmission you might not consider. There are still several different ways this transmission can occur, from physical contact of uncooked meat to even airborne material near farms (every time you smell animal waste, you are breathing in small particles of it likely containing bacteria).

This study, released by a reputable institution like the CDC, adds to the growing body of evidence that antibiotic misuse, especially in livestock, is contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. As more and more bacteria develop resistance, there are fewer and fewer effective treatments available for people when they get seriously ill. The rate at which we develop antibiotics is slowing, and the few that we have that are safe and effective may soon no longer work at all.


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Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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