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Awash With Antibiotics

Paul Kando

From the overuse of antibiotics and a lack of restraints on prescribing strong medications, to the rampant use of the drugs on animals, the world is courting the build-up of antibiotics resistance. Important advances of modern medicine will be lost if countries fail to stop its rise. There could be a lot of suffering with no help from modern medicine. Life-saving treatments could be of little use if we’re defenseless against infections because hospital-grown pathogens are drug-resistant. Organ transplants will be out of the question because they are all prone to infections.

photo credit: thenewsminute.com

Farmers use antibiotics for animal “growth promotion”, a practice banned in Europe and the US, but common elsewhere. Even in the EU and the US, the use of strong antibiotics critical to human health is still allowed on animals despite scientific advice to the contrary.

Antibiotics are vastly overused in farming. This is one of the biggest factors behind the growing problem of drug resistance. Globally, by far the majority of antibiotic use is for animals. Few areas of farming are free from concern. Antibiotics are even used in spraying citrus fruit in the US. Fish farming could easily become a major concern, even as the use of antibiotics has been largely overlooked in that industry.

Is it any surprise that the largest global study on the subject has found hundreds of rivers worldwide awash with dangerous levels of antibiotics?

New research presented at a conference in Helsinki shows that some of the world’s best-known rivers are contaminated with antibiotics classified as critically important for the treatment of serious infections. In many cases the antibiotics were detected at unsafe levels, meaning bacterial resistance is more likely to develop and spread.

The Danube, Europe’s second-largest river, is the continent’s most polluted. Samples taken from the Danube in Austria contained seven antibiotics including clarithromycin, used to treat respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis, at nearly four times the level considered safe.

The Thames, reputedly one of Europe’s cleanest rivers, was found to be contaminated as well, along with some of its tributaries, by a mixture of five antibiotics. At one site Ciprofloxacin, which treats infections of the skin and urinary tract, peaked at more than three times the safe level.

Researchers tested 711 sites in 72 countries and found antibiotics in 65% of them. In 111 of the sites the concentrations exceeded safe levels, with the worst cases more than 300 times over the safe limit.

Of the sites tested in Europe 8% registered above safe limits. But even rivers contaminated with low levels of antibiotics are a threat. The relatively low concentrations seen in Europe can drive the evolution of bacterial resistance and increase the likelihood that resistance genes transfer to human pathogens.

Lower-income countries generally have higher antibiotic concentrations in rivers. Locations in Africa and Asia are the worst. In Bangladesh Metronidazole, used to treat vaginal infections, was found at more than 300 times the safe level. The residues were found especially near wastewater treatment facilities, which. In lower-income countries often lack the technology to remove the drugs. Inappropriate disposal of sewage and waste dumped straight into rivers, as was witnessed at a site in Kenya, also resulted in high antibiotic concentrations of up to 100 times safe levels.

A research team now plans to assess the environmental impacts of antibiotic pollution on wildlife, including fish, invertebrates and algae. They expect severe effects. The drug levels in some Kenyan rivers are so high that no fish could survive.

Improving the safe management of health and hygiene services in low-income countries is critical in the fight against worldwide antimicrobial resistance. A landmark report published by the UN’s Interagency Coordination Group on Antimicrobial Resistance (IACG) recommends stronger rules worldwide to prevent the overuse of such medicines on both farms and people.

Antibiotic pollution is one of the key routes by which bacteria develop resistance to life-saving medicines, rendering them ineffective. The rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a global health emergency that could kill 10 million people by 2050, the UN warned recently. The drugs find their way into rivers and soil via human and animal waste and leaks from wastewater treatment plants and drug manufacturing facilities.

We humans know how to spread weapons, violence, lies and propaganda. Surely, we could also act globally in our true common interest. All we need is leaders who can and will lead—and citizens who demand they do!