In a Canberra hospital, Australia, the death of a highly contagious patient in special isolation is cause for alarm. She had become infected with a deadly strain of bacteria and even the strongest antibiotics hadn’t worked. It is a grim reminder of life before antibiotics. The bacteria concerned – Vancomycin resistant enterococci (VRE) – are so contagious and hard to treat that hospitals are forced to take extra precautions.
“We know from evidence from Europe that if you use the same classes of antibiotics in animals, resistant bacteria develop. They come across the food chain and they can make people sick” comments Dr Peter Colignon, Director of Infectious Disease at Canberra Hospital. Antibiotics were routinely mixed into feedstuffs to lower the death rate and to make animals fatter. “The only reason we used this product was because we had a huge economic advantage” said Dr Jeff Fairbrother of the Australian Chicken Meat Federation.
For a mere 60 years antibiotics have helped humans to fight life-threatening infections. Now the overuse of them seems set to destroy this profound benefit. Has this practice now ended? Should we be gambling with the ‘last of the silver bullets’?
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