As we get ready for the July long weekend in the U.S. and Canada it’s not the usual guests dropping-by for the traditional family barbecue that should concern us. Rather, it’s the uninvited guests, our little buddy’s the bacteria, who will inevitably show up bearing “gifts” that threaten to harm anyone of us, and increasingly so.
How do we know this? It’s because the U.S. government told us so. The problem is, they whispered it and so no one caught what they said. Quietly, on February 5, 2013, the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System – a joint program of the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Agriculture Department – published a report about the increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria they found in the meat that we buy in our supermarkets. Alarmingly, it found that a whopping 81% of our turkey, 68% of our pork chops, 55% of our ground beef, and 39% of chicken breasts, wings, and thighs, contained antibiotic resistant bacteria. We have the usual suspects showing up such as E. coli and salmonella, but increasingly MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), usually associated with hospital infection, is making its way into our food.
Whether we MRSA finds us at the hospital or at the backyard barbecue, the insidious way in which it operates is the same and is worth considering. For example, in 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle reported on how MRSA worked its way through all members of the Gray family. A family of 4, MRSA first struck their newborn son Quinn, just 4 days old, who contracted the infection near his groin. One month later, the 38 year old father Tom Gray discovered a patch of boils down his leg that turned out to be MRSA. Next hit was his wife Lisa, whose breast tissue became infected. In her case surgeons had to cut deep through the tissue almost to the chest wall to drain the infected pus buildup. Things seemed to be going well and then a year later MRSA struck the eldest son, Ethan. Fortunately for the Gray family the doctors found a drug that could treat the children and in the case of Lisa and Tom surgery did the trick. But the parents are left with the surgical scars, and the family lives with the knowledge that MRSA could return.
Not everyone is as “lucky” as the Gray family. In 2009, the Columbus Dispatch reported on the case of Steven “Blake” Haxton, captain of the Upper Arlington High (Ohio) rowing team, who went to the hospital complaining of pain in his calf. At that age you figure it’s probably just a case of overtraining and with a little rest and maybe some physiotherapy you’ll be back competing in no time. Unfortunately, Blake had contracted MRSA which turned into a flesh-eating disease called necrotizing fasciitis. Two days later Blake had his first leg amputated; he became “violently ill,” his heart stopped, he went into shock with liver, lung, and kidney failure, and his other leg had to be amputated. Death seemed all but inevitable. But somehow Blake managed to survive and today he is studying Business at Ohio State University and is an assistant rowing coach at his former high school.
Although the lives of the Gray’s and Blake Haxton were spared, the lives of many of us aren’t. Each year in just the U.S. alone, about 102,000 people get MRSA and of that number about 19,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while Blake Haxton, and Tom and Lisa Gray, were strong healthy adults who contracted their MRSA-caused infections, it is the case of 4 day old Quinn Gray that is more typical. That’s because it is the physiologically vulnerable among us who face the greatest risk. Such groups as newborn babies, our grandparents, people who have weakened immune systems like cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, diabetics, burn victims, anyone with a serious illness or who undergoes a major surgery, and those with AIDS – in other words, one heck of a lot of people.
But things are getting better, right? Not so says Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “More and more essential medicines are failing,” she says, and “In the absence of urgent and corrective action, the world is heading toward a post-antibiotic era in which common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill us.”
A “post-antibiotic era”? Karl Drlica, Ph.D. and David Perlin, Ph.D., of the New Jersey Medical School in Newark, point out in their 2011 book Antibiotic Resistance – Understanding and Responding to an Emerging Crisis, that prior to the use of antibiotics beginning in the 1950s, it was infectious disease that was the leading cause of death in developed countries. Then along came penicillin and a host of other antibiotics and that all changed … for a while. Now, just 60-some years later they warn us that we’re on the brink of an antibiotic caused storm that threatens all of us.
The principle is simple: if you use too much antibiotics the microbes adapt and build up resistance. The antibiotics no longer work and so we lose the ability to treat even routine infections. How soon might this happen? Drlica and Perlin point out a number of disquieting factors at work right now. Resistance to drugs doesn’t occur at a uniform rate, it can suddenly spike as it has in the past. Pathogens like MRSA are developing resistance to more and more antibiotics. And the development of new drugs to fight these new resistant pathogens has virtually stopped: there are none in the pipeline.
So where does this leave us? As the need to feed our ever expanding population increases we turn increasingly to industrialized methods to do so. Our cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys are mostly raised in factories, not farms (calculated illusory imagery at our supermarkets notwithstanding). These animals live in crowded, stressful, often filthy environments – sometimes ankle deep in their own manure. In order to prevent disease from breaking out in these volatile conditions and to rapidly increase the growth of the animals, they are fed antibiotics. And it is this very practice that leads to the ever increasing problem of drug resistance that the U.S government oh-so-quietly reported on this past February.
So back to our upcoming July barbecue. Most of us will undoubtedly escape unharmed. However, we might keep in mind that the average meat patty contains tiny pieces of meat from about 1,000 cows. And that the average American eats about 200 pounds of meat every year. Most of us don’t read government reports, nor should we, or know people like the Haxton’s or the Gray’s. However, infectious disease epidemics have swept this and other developed countries before and as recently as the early 20th century. The highest authorities we have are now candidly telling us this is on the verge of happening again. And if they’re right the question of “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” will soon enough evolve into “Guess who’s not coming to dinner?” And unfortunately, it won’t be our little buddies that we’re referring to.