Antibiotics, Superbugs, and Animal Products

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Health Sciences Institute e-Alert

August 6, 2002


Dear Reader, They're called "superbugs" - bacteria so determined to survive that they adapt to whatever antibiotics we invent to fight them. This frightening scenario has turned into a dangerous, ongoing battle, just as we at HSI first predicted it would 6 years ago.

With all the frightening upheavals going on in the world right now it's easy to overlook the war being waged on a microscopic level inside our own bodies. But as daunting as it is, the good news is that there are some essential and easy steps you can take to protect yourself and your family.

Michigan battle ground

But first, the bad news. Two weeks ago, doctors in Michigan reported the first case of a new bacterium that is completely resistant to vancomycin - a powerful antibiotic that's so effective that it's referred to as a "last line of defense."

The new drug-resistant bacterium is a variation on Staphylococcus aureus (SA), a superbug that sometimes causes infections in wounds following surgery. SA is the first bacterium considered to be completely resistant to vancomycin. The Michigan doctors managed to catch the infection early and contain it, but they believe that vancomycin-resistant SA will emerge again.

Fred Tenover of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control led the bacterial analysis in Michigan, and said that he and his colleagues fully expect to see more mutated organisms like SA. For several years scientists have been developing new antibiotics called linezolid and quinupristin/dalfopristin to address new mutations of vancomycin-resistant SA. But new strains of SA have already been identified that are resistant to the new drugs.

How does SA find a way to overcome the new drugs so quickly? Gary French, a clinical microbiologist of Guy's & St. Thomas' Hospital in London believes that the problem lies with doctors who are not aware of the risks of over-prescribing antibiotics. French says, "It's extremely worrying."

My feelings exactly. Unfortunately, the dilemma of physicians who are uninformed is just one part of a large problem that begins down on the farm.

Quick fix side effects

In an e-Alert I sent you last May ("Got Antibiotics?" 5/8/02) I told you about the deplorable situation on dairy and cattle farms where farmers routinely force-feed antibiotics to their livestock to prevent disease.

In recent years, a growing body of research has shown that antibiotics are grossly overused in dairy and livestock farming - and that overuse may play a significant role in the development of human antibiotic resistance.

Think the fear of antibiotics in livestock is inflated? Then consider this: as much as 80% of the total antibiotic production in the U.S. is used in agriculture. I don't know about you, but I find that truly shocking. And it's not used on just dairy animals, but on every type of livestock and poultry. What's worse, a substantial portion of it is not even used to fight disease, but to promote growth.

A University of Maryland study released last spring supported the conclusion that agricultural antibiotic use may be introducing new antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria into the human population. But Richard Lobb doesn't agree. Mr. Lobb is a spokesman for the National Chicken Council and dismisses the conclusions of the Maryland study. He defends the use of antibiotics by poultry farmers, saying, "They are always used in a responsible manner in the chicken industry."

For some reason I don't feel reassured.

Your personal homeland security

Here's a sobering thought: Bacteria can "teach" one another to resist antibiotics

Bacteria are highly adaptive. When one develops resistance to an antibiotic, it can pass that resistance to similar and even unrelated strains. They do this by passing plasmids, which are DNA-containing organisms, from one to another. Some researchers have suggested this is the reason some microbes that once caused diseases only in animals are now also infecting and killing humans.

The authors of the Maryland study concluded with a recommendation that authorities regulate and limit the agricultural use of new antibiotics. Unfortunately this isn't a "real-world" solution. We've already seen evidence that many farmers can be quite creative in their efforts to sidestep regulations and mask their use of antibiotics.

So what can you do in your own home to protect yourself and your family? If your diet includes dairy, eggs, or meats, choose organic whenever possible. Organic farmers do not use antibiotics or growth hormones, and you can now find organic dairy and meats - clearly marked - in many mainstream supermarkets. It's also important to cook meats thoroughly and be diligent in scrubbing cutting boards and utensils.

And of course, anything you can do to boost your immune system gives your body a much better chance of fighting all bacteria. In other words, eat your vegetables! Cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and broccoli have all been shown to have a natural detoxifying effect on your body.

At HSI we regard this growing epidemic of superbugs as one of our primary concerns. As we bring you further reports about resistant bacteria and new antibiotics, I'll also be watching for more information on innovative and natural ways to fight the good fight on the microscopic level.

Do you have comments, questions or suggestions that you'd like to share? We're always interested to know what you're thinking. Just click into the HSI Forum on our website ( and add your voice to this and other health care discussions.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

"Bacteria Defies Last-Resort Antibiotic" Nature News Service, 7/26/02
"Shield Yourself From Deadly "Smart Bugs" HSI Members Alert, 8/1/01

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