The end of the antibiotic era
Deadly superbugs are about to make routine medical procedures downright deadly
Protect yourself and your loved ones in 5 simple steps
As any history buff knows, we need to learn from our past—or risk repeating it. That’s why a new warning from the authors of a recent Lancet article from the UK is particularly alarming. Their research indicates that death rates from bacterial infection “might return to those of the early 20th century.”
And we have antibiotic abuse to blame.
I’ve been warning about the dangers of antibiotics and their overuse for years. We’ve known for quite some time that using these drugs inappropriately would have disastrous results. Namely, they would allow more and more untreatable, dangerous infections to develop. Unfortunately, those warnings are no longer far off, theoretical concerns. The danger is at our doorstep.
“Super-bugs” that develop from antibiotic overuse are just around the corner, according to researchers in the UK. And the consequences are dire.
England’s deputy chief medical officer, John Watson, puts the very real results of years of antibiotic abuse in perspective. “In just 20 years,” he warns, “Routine surgeries such as hip replacements could result in death if the patient develops an infection.
But it doesn’t take a Dr. Watson (or even a Sherlock Holmes) to decipher the evidence about overuse of antibiotics and the emergence of “super bugs.”
Doctors just can’t say no
The infuriating fact about these frightening new bacteria is that they could have been prevented. If only doctors had taken heed of the warnings and saved antibiotics for cases in which they’re appropriate and absolutely necessary, we wouldn’t be facing this new reality.
But they didn’t listen. And what’s worse is that they’re still not listening.
Every unnecessary antibiotic prescribed allows—and even encourages—bacteria to continue growing. They survive by mutating to develop resistance to the antibiotic.
So how did we get to this point?
Better off at the bottom of the ocean…
Before the 20th century, infectious diseases were the leading causes of death worldwide. Treatments for infection (like today’s treatments for cancer) were highly toxic to the patient. The hope was to kill more bacteria cells than healthy cells using arsenic, lead, mercury, and other toxic compounds.
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes acknowledged the danger of that contemporary approach. In an address to the Massachusetts Medical Society (publisher of the New England of Medicine—the U.S. counterpart to the British Lancet) in 1860, he stated, “If the entire materia medica, as presently practiced, could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.”
No wonder alternative, natural, “drugless” medical practices re- emerged to new prominence during the time.
But then in the early 1900s came the development of “magic bullets” for treating infections. Poisons were no longer needed.
The “magic” of the new antibiotics was that they didn’t kill bacteria outright. They simply slowed their growth. Which allowed the immune system to overcome the infection naturally. (This approach is similar to how the body controls infection naturally. For example, fevers also slow bacterial growth, allowing the immune system to naturally overtake the infection—see the sidebar on page 3.)
It was a boon to the practice of modern mainstream medicine. But this advancement came with a price. One we’re paying now—in more ways than one.
Nearly two decades ago, when directing the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, I predicted that the medical “arms race” to use ever more “magic bullets” would result in more deaths from “friendly fire.” Looks like that time has arrived.
Without effective antibiotics, the Lancet articles says, “treatments from minor surgery to major transplants could become impossible, and healthcare costs are likely to spiral.”
But human use (and abuse) of antibiotics isn’t the only factor involved in the rise of deadly super bugs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) here in the U.S. has pointed to another source of antibiotic overload…
“Farm fresh” antibiotic resistance
The CDC issued a report in 2013 confirming the connection between “routine” use of antibiotics in livestock and the growing number of “super bug” infections in people. The notorious MRSA (methicillin- resistant staphylococcus aureus) is one such example.
In fact, more than 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States go to farm animals.1 Industrial-scale farming causes animals to live in such poor, unnatural, overcrowded conditions that they develop infections easily. Antibiotics not only keep infection-related costs down, but they also “beef up” profits in another way. The drugs’ metabolic effects fatten animals before they’re sold off the farms.
These antibiotics affect us in two ways: First, they remain in the meat we eat, increasing our unnecessary exposure to antibiotics. Second, they contribute to the evolution of these drug-resistant super bugs in the environment. And as I’ve reported before, drug-resistant bacteria result in the deaths of at least 23,000 Americans per year and sicken 2 million more.2
In addition to the obvious problems of drug-resistant bacteria, antibiotic overuse is probably at least partially responsible for increasing problems with normal immune system function—which potentially result in problems like more allergies, and higher rates of invasive breast and prostate cancer.
Antibiotics also kill beneficial probiotic bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. And that disrupts the balance of “good” bacteria that can help protect us from other diseases (see “Microscopic bugs may hold the secret to transforming your health” in the January 2013 issue of Insiders’ Cures). Disrupting this balance also allows dangerous bacteria to take hold such as Clostridium difficile, which can indeed be difficult and almost impossible to treat… even fatal, especially in hospitalized patients.
So there’s more than one reason to be concerned about the imminent threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Left hand, meet right hand
Is it too late to turn the tide? Well, it would help if government bureaucrats would get on board with each other.
In terms of public health, the CDC should stop pretending it has a role in controlling chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
Instead it should get back to what it’s supposed to be good at—protecting us from infectious diseases. Their so-called campaigns against chronic diseases have been a bust, wasting both time and tax dollars to spread misinformation to the public.
My insider’s hunch is that the CDC’s sole motivation for “broadening” its mission was to compete with the National Institutes of Health for funding. But scaring the public about the threats of antibiotic resistance should be a great way to ensure their continued tax funding.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should also get on board. They could reduce people’s dependence on antibiotics by adopting a truthful, sensible approach to all the science behind natural products. They could stop persecuting companies who are telling the truth about the health benefits of natural foods, including boosting natural immunity. And they could do more to encourage the development of new, effective treatments for serious, life-threatening infections. Instead of focusing on “blockbuster” drugs for semi- imaginary conditions such as “Low-T” (see page 6) and questionable “risk factors” like cholesterol.
And while I’m dreaming, perhaps the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) could get also on board and stop labeling artificial hormone- and antibiotic-fattened beef as “superior- grade” meat.
Of course, all of this would require the right hand of government knowing what the left hand is doing, and taking some real responsibility and accountability for public health.
But I don’t have too much hope for that.
Fortunately, there are some things we can do as individuals.
Protect yourself from superbugs in 5 simple steps
Here are some common-sense steps you can take to protect yourself from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and help stem this growing public health problem.
- Practice good hygiene. The simplest step you can take is to wash hands well with regular soap (not antibacterial agents!) and water.
- Don’t take antibiotics unless you have a bacterial infection that requires treatment with an antibiotic. The best way to determine whether you really need an antibiotic—and which one(s)— is for your doctor to take a sample of the infected area. For example, take a swab of your sore throat and then submit it to the lab to (a) detect the presence of bacteria, (b) determine which bacteria and (c) test to see which antibiotics will work against it. Without taking these steps, it is guesswork.
As many as half of all antibiotic prescriptions are prescribed when they’re not needed, or they’re misused. Which leads me to my next piece of advice…
- If you are appropriately prescribed antibiotics, take the full dose for the full course of treatment. Up to one-third of prescriptions are not taken correctly. Inappropriate practices double the use of antibiotics without any clinical benefit whatsoever.
- Only choose meat and dairy that are labeled “organic” and “raised without antibiotics.”
- Keep your immune system in good working order. This is probably the single most important thing you can do for your health. Unfortunately, it’s also probably the single most overlooked step in fighting deadly “super bugs.” See the sidebar on page 3 for more insight on this.
So while the CDC is wringing its hands, keep washing yours and following the other simple, sensible advice for good health. After all, the best offense we have against deadly super bugs is still a good defense.
The secret to beating ANY infection
Doctors continue to prescribe antibiotics for conditions that would heal themselves without antibiotics, such as most ear infections. Every time a doctor pulls out the prescription pad and scribbles a note for a “quick fix,” we take one step closer to being unable to treat serious, life-threatening bacterial infections when we really need to.
So I’d like to point out an important fact that has been disregarded all along. Overcoming any infection requires a healthy immune system. Antibiotics simply slow the growth of bacteria long enough for the immune system to out- run the bacteria. Plus, a fever is a natural antibiotic that also slows the bacteria until the immune system is able to do its work. But instead of working with the symptoms (what the body is doing to try to heal itself ), mainstream medicine too often focuses on relieving or eliminating those symptoms (such as fever). This approach simply makes the body more reliant on outside artificial treatments.
And of course, antibiotics only help with bacterial infections, not with viral infections.
If physicians focused on supporting the immune system, antibiotics would be far less necessary. And the best place to start is with diet. Poor or inadequate nutrition acts in synergy with infections to make them more dangerous. Around the world, medical scientists have shown for decades that better nourished populations are less susceptible to the scourges of infectious disease. But that logic has not been extended to the United States.
In addition, several specific nutrients help support the immune system—especially vitamin C and zinc, as well as vitamins A, B, D and E.
Many herbs also naturally boost the immune system, such as Echinacea and goldenseal. (These should only be used when you’re coming down with something, not daily). Your immune system overcomes viral and fungal infections, as well as bacterial infections.
But without a healthy immune system, no drug will work. That is the key to understanding the fatally flawed public health approach to HIV/AIDS, for example. Instead of taking simple, effective measures proven to prevent the disease, public health approaches have focused on developing expensive drugs that can’t work. Why? Because there is no healthy immune system to ultimately overcome and cure infections.
The same is true with antibiotic misuse. The problems are only “controlled” or hidden, leading to development of more and more dangerous strains of bacteria and fungi harboring in inadequately treated patients. And that can potentially expose the entire population to deadly infections—but we’ll have no antibiotics strong enough to treat them.
1. The Pew Health Initiatives. Record high antibiotic sales for meat and poultry production. Published February 6, 2013. Available at: http://www.pewhealth.org/other-resource/record-high-antibiotic-sales-for-meat-and-poultry-production-85899449119. Accessed December 19, 2013.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013 report. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/threat-report-2013/pdf/ar-threats-2013-508.pdf. Accessed December 19, 2013.