Attack of the Killer Mutants

Modern Bacteria are Resisting Treatment by Antibiotics

When penicillin was first discovered to cure diseases in the 1930s, it seemed a miracle. Some thought you couldn’t get too much of a good thing. One Asian brothel routinely fed penicillin prophylactically to its workers, hoping to prevent infections. But some Neisseriea gonorrheoeae, the bacterium that causes gonorrhea, mutated in ways that allowed them to survive the antibiotic onslaught. By the 1970s, several gonorrhea strains were almost completely resistant to all forms of penicillin; one was traced back to that specific brothel after spreading around the world.

Gonorrhea bacteria aren’t alone in having developed resistance to what were once miracle drugs. Other bacteria that have "learned" to combat antibiotics include those that cause ear infections and meningitis in children, pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Resistance Builds

The bacteria Staphylococcus aureus can cause deadly infections of the skin, heart valves, blood and bones, and in 1997, three Americans were reported to be infected with strains of it that were resistant to the antibiotic vancomycin. A 1998 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) noted, "The cases should have sent shudders through the medical community and the public, because vancomycin is the last line of defense in treating deadly hospital-acquired staph infections." According to the report, methicillin-resistant S. aureus jumped from 2.4 percent of cases in hospitals in 1975 to 29 percent in 1991. In some hospitals, the resistance rate was 60 percent. More than 90 percent of S. aureus strains are resistant to penicillin.

Resistance itself is not necessarily the problem, but rather that bacteria are becoming resistant to existing antibiotics faster than researchers can find, test and get approval for new ones.

Why is this happening? All evidence points to overuse of medications, just as in the case of the Asian brothel. "The more antibiotics are used, the more likely it is that bacteria will develop mechanisms to evade them," notes the CSPI’s Antibiotic Resistance Project. Antibiotics are overused everywhere from the doctor’s office to the livestock ranch. Antibiotic-laden urine from humans and livestock pollutes streams around the nation, according to a study by the U.S.

Geological Survey published last March. Alternative medicines that don’t breed stronger diseases are little known and underutilized. As miraculous-but-still-imperfect antibiotics flood the world of deadly bacteria, those bacteria invariably mutate to beat the threat.

The good news is that informed consumers can make a difference by helping check the overuse of antibiotics.

The Drug-Intensive Factory Farm

Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), says no government agency tracks antibiotic use in livestock. So Mellon and colleagues at UCS developed their own methodology. Looking at a variety of variables, the group estimated that 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are fed to healthy cows, pigs and poultry.

The rationale for the nontherapeutic use is twofold. First, the antibiotics help the livestock grow fatter faster. The second rationale is the same as the Asian brothel, to get in ahead of any disease. In many factory livestock operations, the animals are crowded together, so if an infection starts it spreads rapidly.

But this medically unnecessary use has led to resistant strains of several bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella. Three studies published last year in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine found antibiotic-resistant bacteria on supermarket meats around the country. An editorial in that journal by Dr. Sherwood Gorbach of Tufts University School of Medicine called for cutting antibiotics out of livestock feed. The same month, the American Medical Association issued a similar call. Bills have now been introduced in both the House and the Senate to phase out the routine feeding of medically important antibiotics to healthy farm animals, according to the Keep Antibiotics Working campaign.

A recent outbreak of resistant urinary-tract infections also was traced to overuse of antibiotics in meat, Mellon says. Although thorough cooking will kill meat-borne bacteria, improper handling and contamination of cutting boards or kitchen counters can spread the disease to humans. "The AMA thinks it’s a health threat," Mellon says. "It’s leading to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant disease in humans."

Antibiotic Alternatives

Rowan Hamilton, a professor of botanical medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle, hasn’t had antibiotics in his body for 45 years and doesn’t seem terrified of the specter of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

He points to work done in a Parisian hospital in which doctors used essential oils of tea tree, thyme and oregano to treat infections. The doctors found that a tiny amount of tea tree oil could effectively kill even deadly S. aureus.

And using tea tree oil to fight bacteria isn’t likely to lead to resistant strains. "With tea tree oil you have up to 100 different active components working synergistically and simultaneously," he says. "So the chance of any resistance developing is negligible."

There are plenty of alternatives to prescription antibiotics, he explains. "You can pretty much go through a list of herbs that are antibiotic, including garlic and horseradish. For chest infections, you can try wild thyme oil." He suggests garlic and echinacea for the ear infections that send many children straight to pink, antibiotic goo. "Garlic crushed in olive oil makes wonderful earache drops for children," Hamilton suggests.

Alternative remedies such as echinacea and astragalus support the immune system. He compares prescription antibiotics to "sending in the rangers." Antibiotics, Hamilton concludes, "are a valuable tool but a poor habit. Undoubtedly, when they are appropriate, antibiotics are essential. They’re invaluable for acute infections like gangrene, for example."

Judicious Use

The key is to make smart choices about when and how to use antibiotics. One of the leading reasons for over-prescription is that people who go to the doctor want to leave feeling that something was done—which often translates into a prescription. But antibiotics don’t treat many common ailments such as viral sore throats, colds or flus. Another problem is the tendency to take antibiotics "just in case" when diagnostic tests to actually pinpoint illnesses are expensive. Informed parents or patients should ask if antibiotics will treat their specific illness.

If you use antibiotics, always take the full course of treatment. Stopping early, even if symptoms have abated, can leave some bacteria alive to develop resistance. Don’t save antibiotics for later or share them, since every case is different. Hamilton suggests asking doctors for herbal or other non-prescription therapies. He also recommends asking the simplest question of all: "Will my condition improve on its own, without drugs?"

ORNA IZAKSON grows antibacterial garlic, lavender and lemon thyme in her Eugene, OR garden.