What you can't see can hurt you: our overuse of antibiotics are creating more drug-resistant superbugs. IMAGE: Steven Fruitsmaak, Wikimedia Commons
Dame Sally Davies, the U.K.'s Chief Medical Officer, made waves with her first annual report since taking the job: the antibiotics we take for illness and the ones we routinely feed our livestock are gradually wiping out the bacteria we are good at killing and creating more and more “superbugs” that are very difficult to kill. Davies warns that without the creation of new drugs and tighter restrictions on when and how antibiotics are used, we could be headed toward "a health system not dissimilar from the early 19th century."
While the use of antibiotics can’t be wished away, there are two major areas where things could be improved through regulation. First, doctors could have to meet a higher threshold to prescribe antibiotics. Too often they do so for reasons that boil down to “why not” and/or “my patient keeps nagging me about this.” Second, we could take strides to cut way back on the antibiotics given to livestock, who, at least in the U.S., consume more antibiotics than humans. If we were trying to create superbugs in our cows, we couldn’t do a lot better than what we’re doing now.
Major Public Health Concern: Corn subsidies?
Corn is heavily subsidized in the United States—it would barely be profitable without the government chipping in for every acre grown. As a result, American farmers grow way more corn than we need and so high-fructose corn syrup is cheaper than sugar and corn feed is cheaper than the needed pasture land for a grass diet, so most American cows eat lots of corn. The problem: cow stomachs, despite there being four of them, are not built to digest corn. Picture a cow eating: you thought of a cow eating grass, right? That’s what cows evolved to eat, and that’s what keeps them naturally healthy. To “balance” their diets, cows get loads of antibiotics mixed in with their corn. Those are eventually passed along to you in the form of beef and milk.
Why do we have such a blatantly illogical system? Because the corn lobby punishes politicians who want to change our terrible status quo, and you, the voter are not providing a counterbalance.
So, if you buy meat, try to ensure that it is grass-fed (grain for chicken) and cage-free. The future of public health depends on it.