#6 Antibiotic Resistant “Superbugs” Threaten Health and Foundations of Modern Medicine

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Pharmaceutical companies that produce antibiotics are creating dangerous superbugs when their factories leak industrial waste, Madlen Davies of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in September 2016. Superbugs are bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics. Pharmaceutical factories in China and India—the places where the majority of the world’s antibiotics are manufactured—are releasing “untreated waste fluid” into local soils and waters, leading to increases in antimicrobial resistance that diminish the effectiveness of antibiotics and threaten the foundations of modern medicine. A number of the companies have established links to US markets.

After bacteria in the environment become resistant, they can exchange genetic material with other germs, spreading antibiotic resistance around the world, according to an assessment issued by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), which served as the basis for Davies’s news report. Davies described a case in which a drug-resistant bacterium that originated in India in 2014 has since been found in seventy other countries. Superbugs resulting from pharmaceutical pollution have already killed an estimated 25,000 people across Europe—thus globally posing “as big a threat as terrorism,” according to a UK National Health Service official, Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies. In a May 2014 report, Martin Khor quoted Dr. Keiji Fukuda, who coordinated the World Health Organization’s work on antimicrobial resistance between 2010 and 2016. According to Fukuda, “A post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can kill, far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

At the heart of the issue is how to motivate pharmaceutical companies to improve their production practices. With strong demand for antibiotics, the companies continue to profit despite the negative consequences of their actions. The EPHA assessment recommended five responses that major purchasers of medicines could implement to help stop antibiotic pollution. Among these recommendations are blacklisting pharmaceutical companies that contribute to the spread of superbugs through irresponsible practices, and promoting legislation to incorporate environmental criteria into the industry’s good manufacturing practices.

In 2015, World Health Organization head Margaret Chan cautioned that antibiotic-resistant superbugs may signal “the end of modern medicine as we know it.” Noting that superbugs “haunt” hospitals and intensive care units around the world, Chan reported that, if current trends continue, “sophisticated interventions,” including organ transplants, joint replacements, cancer chemotherapy, and care of pre-term infants,” will become more difficult or even too dangerous to undertake” as common infections “will once again kill. As Katie Morley and Madlen Davies reported in the Telegraph in December 2016, data analysis by the UK Sepsis Trust indicated that superbugs now cause more deaths than breast cancer in the UK. The UK Sepsis trust estimates that around 12,000 people in the UK die because of drug resistance each year, a figure that is considerably higher than the government estimate of 5,000 deaths per year due to drug resistance. In 2014, the government recorded 11,433 deaths due to breast cancer.

As Morley and Davies reported, “the full extent of the problem is obscured because the Government statistics are calculated using ‘ballpark’ figures from foreign studies, not those conducted in the UK.” Furthermore, superbugs are “rarely listed on death certificates,” and government health officials often lack political, legal, and financial means to establish a rigorous system to monitor the spread of resistance.

In May 2016, Scientific American reported that a “dangerous new form of antibiotic resistance has spread to the United States.” Bacteria infecting a Pennsylvania woman with a urinary tract infection proved resistant to colistin, which is known as an “antibiotic of last resort.” Citing a report published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote that “the findings have sounded alarm bells” among scientists who fear that “common infections will soon be untreatable.”

In November 2015, Wenner Moyer reported, Chinese and British researchers discovered that a new gene for colistin resistance—known as mcr-1—was circulating among animals and people in China. The case of the Pennsylvania woman is the first to document mcr-1 in the US. Wenner Moyer also noted that in May 2016 the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services announced that they had discovered colistin-resistant bacteria in an American pig, suggesting that colistin-resistant bacteria have reached American livestock. If the newly discovered mcr-1 gene is picked up by other bacteria that are already resistant to multiple drugs, then “the world could suddenly be faced with pan-drug-resistant bacteria.” As Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, told Scientific American, the results would be “a royal flush—the infection has an unbeatable hand.”

Although the threat of antibiotic-resistant microbes is well documented in scientific publications, there is little to no coverage on superbugs in the corporate press. What corporate news coverage there is tends to exaggerate the risks and consequences of natural outbreaks—as seen during the Ebola scare in the US in 2014—rather than reporting on the preventable spread of superbugs by irresponsible pharmaceutical companies.

Melinda Wenner Moyer, “Dangerous New Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Reach U.S.,” Scientific American, May 27, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/dangerous-new-antibiotic-resistant-bacteria-reach-u-s/.

Madlen Davies, “How Big Pharma’s Industrial Waste is Fuelling the Rise in Superbugs Worldwide,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, September 15, 2016, https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2016-09-15/how-big-pharmas-industrial-waste-is-fuelling-the-rise-in-superbugs-worldwide.

Katie Morley and Madlen Davies, “Superbugs Killing More People Than Breast Cancer, Trust Warns,” Telegraph, December 10, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/12/10/superbugs-killing-people-breast-cancer-trust-warns/.

Student Researchers: Yadira Martinez (Sonoma State University) and Bridgette McShea (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluators: Roxanne Ezzet (Sonoma State University) and Rob Williams (University of Vermont)