The reality ofsuperbugs, andwhat we cando to fight them

Lenna Harding

A recent article in the Daily News and the science behind superbugs gave me a lot of food for thought. While I had already heard most of it, it covered an aspect I hadn’t been aware of — the affect on the environment and soil health. When I learned that an acquaintance was a retired microbiologist, I questioned her about it and what she had to say really concerned me even more.

Superbugs were created by the profligate misuse and overuse of antibiotics, so that now we no longer have any antibiotic defense because these superbugs are resistant to all known antibiotics. It is not only humans affected but animals and the plant environment as well.

Not only did doctors overprescribe them, patients too often failed to take the entire dose, leaving live bugs that become resistant. Large commercial farms with huge concentrations of animals are now the principle offenders.

To prevent contagion spreading throughout their herds and flocks, they routinely give animals large doses of preventive antibiotics. In turn, these stay in their systems and appear in their meat so those of us who consume their meat are treated to unwanted doses. Not only that, the droppings carry antibiotics into the soil of the farm and then into any crops grown nearby, then into nearby streams then into rivers.

As a result, superbugs are now immune to every known antibiotic and we are left without any weapon against them. Antibiotics are derived from natural sources and each one is different. We have now used all known strains — there are no more new kinds of antibiotics waiting in the wings we can develop. So what now?

One thing we can do is to quit abusing and overusing the ones we have. We don’t want to lose the effectiveness of those. When we buy meat laced with antibiotics, we further the problem. We can all start insisting on either choosing meat raised to be antibiotic free or find veggie substitutes. When the farmers who use them find their sales falling, maybe they will change their practices. One even more drastic move would be to outlaw such practices in order to stop their use. Most of us eat more meat than is good for us anyway.

We can further help by not disposing of any unused medicines by flushing them down the drain or throwing them in the garbage. In Pullman, people can leave them in a container in the lobby of the police station. I assume Moscow and other towns have similar opportunities. Some doctors will also take them.

When used improperly, they get into the water supply and we are in trouble. Few if any sewage treatment plants are able to get all of them out of the sewage so they go into rivers which, downstream, are often tapped for city water use or irrigation of crops that take them in for us to eat.

That is just how insidious this problem is. Naturally occurring bacteria — both good and bad — are vulnerable to it. When we kill good bugs, we are also killing some of our natural defenses against disease.

Other ways we can protect ourselves is to wash all our produce thoroughly before eating. Handwashing after returning home from out in the world is another way. We all have a big stake in solving this problem and there is much we can do to prevent further damage. It is a public safety issue that we all need to get involved in solving. That is the essence of good citizenship.

We need to learn to question any proposed prescription for antibiotics. Make sure the disease treated is caused by a bacteria, not a virus such as colds.

When we learn to act responsibly, maybe the problem will subside somewhat. In the meantime, we need to practice good hygiene, use appropriate disinfectants where needed and act with knowledge, not old wives tales.

Lenna Harding lived her first 20 and past 43 years in Pullman. A longtime League of Women Voters member, she served on the Gladish Community and Cultural Center board.

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