We hear stories in reaction to incurable 'superbug' bacterial infections like this story from Los Angeles and this one from Washington in the news constantly. The Obama administration has even released a five-year plan to combat the issue he calls "one of the most pressing public health issues facing the world today."
What can us citizens and consumers do to help prevent these incurable infections? First, we need to fully understand the issue:
When bacteria are exposed to low levels of antibiotics, but not all killed, the remaining microbes have the potential to reproduce millions of bacteria which are well equipped to survive the antibiotics which they survived. This type of situation is more common than you would think, occurring in both our farming and health care systems. Most animals raised on modern factory farms are given a low level of antibiotics every day in their feed to keep them healthy in the midst of unsanitary living conditions. Similarly, many patients given antibiotics tend to not finish their prescription if their health improves quickly. Antibiotic resistance created from these sources contribute to making approximately 2,000,000 sick and lead to at least 23,000 deaths in the United States every year because of ineffective antibiotics.
But you can help save future patients' lives with these 5 simple tricks:
1. Support restaurants and supermarkets that serve meat raised without antibiotics
By learning where to buy meat raised without antibiotics, you can actively contribute to keeping businesses like these profitable and growing, while reducing the profitability of businesses which continue to operate by the status quo. When you buy from businesses that sell ethically raised meat, you show those companies that abuse antibiotics in raising animals that they must change their ways. By doing so, you can help contribute to phasing out the routine use of antibiotics and to curbing the threat of antibiotic resistance.
2. Understand food labels
Food packaging can be confusing and often misleading. Terms like "natural" and "premium" are unregulated by the FDA and therefore don't actually mean anything. Similarly, meat packaging will often emphasize that the product is "100 percent antibiotic-free," indicating that there are no trace amounts of antibiotics in the meat itself. However, animals that yield meat labeled this way are typically still raised with the routine use of antibiotics and therefore still contribute to the public health threat of antibiotic resistance. Instead, look for meat labeled "raised without antibiotics" to ensure that you're buying meat that helps preserve antibiotics for medicinal uses. Also, it can be helpful to use USDA organic certification as an information shortcut since one of the many criteria for an organic meat product is that it is raised without the routine use of antibiotics.
3. Get local
If you want to create change, the adage goes, "think globally and act locally." This could not be truer in the case of fighting antibiotic resistance. Some of the most effective ways for the average person to contribute to solving this global issue is to lobby for changes within local hospitals, schools, and other public services. For example, by influencing your local school board or town council to commit to serving school lunches and hospital cafeteria meals from sources that do not abuse antibiotics, an enormous amount of meals will contribute to preventing further antibiotic resistance from developing for years to come.
4. Finish your prescriptions
You can also help save antibiotics without changing the way you eat at all! Simply by finishing your entire prescription of antibiotics, even if you begin to feel better only a few days of treatment in, you leave less infectious bacteria alive inside of you. By finishing your prescription, you ensure that even the strongest, most adept bacteria -- the ones able to survive the first few days of treatment -- are killed as well, thus preventing them from reproducing entire populations of similarly strong, adept microbes. Preventing the development of these populations is key in preserving the strength of antibiotics and in saving lives down the road.
5. Take action
Simply by educating your friends, family, and community about this issue and the ways they can help adds to the positive effects of all of these actions. Multiply the already significant impact an individual can make by following the first four steps by the number of friends and family they convince to do the same -- now serious change can be made. Also, consider supporting organizations that advocate for this issue, such as the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, USPIRG, The Union of Concerned Scientists, The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Natural Resources Defense Council to continue educating the public and organizing constituents to save antibiotics.
Many have called for the Obama administration to take action against the abuse of antibiotics by the agriculture industry, but even with the recent release of a national action plan to combat antibiotic resistant bacteria, not enough is being done to impact the operations of factory farms. Yet, this pressing public health issue can be effectively solved by the people themselves. By taking action and following these tips, you will be doing your part to save modern medicine.
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