Technobrat Pundit Follies: The Antibiotic Resistance Edition

I don’t know Ezra Klein of The Washington Post personally, but he strikes me as a very earnest, smart person, albeit one who is an omniscient gentleman in training (or else hopelessly credulous). So I don’t bear the man any ill will.

Anyway, yesterday, he wrote a post about antibiotic resistance, decrying the role of industrial farming, and correctly describing how it requires the use of subtherapeutic doses to be profitable (subtherapeutic doses are the best way to enable antibiotic resistance to evolve–it’s easy enough to demonstrate in an introductory biology lab course). But then there was this doozy (boldface mine):

The reason is simple enough: If we didn’t pump our livestock full of antibiotics, they would get sick. They are, after all, packed into dim and dirty enclosures. They’re stacked on top of one another. And they’re being fed food they didn’t evolve to eat. All of this makes animals sick. But rather than raise them in a way that doesn’t make them sick, but costs somewhat more, we just keep them on constant doses of antibiotics.

And then we eat them. Which means we get constant, low-grade doses of these antibiotics. Which means common bacteria get constant, low-grade doses of these antibiotics. And there’s mounting evidence that this background exposure to antibiotics is contributing to the startling rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Sweet Baby Intelligent Designer, no. No. While quaternary ammonium compounds such as triclosan can survive for long periods under harsh conditions, the ‘dual-use’ antibiotics used in medicine aren’t going to survive deep frying. Or grilling. Or broiling. Hell, you’re supposed to keep most antibiotics in cool or room temperature conditions for a reason. So unless you’re eating your chicken raw (Teaser: believe it or not, I’ll actually be mentioning this in a future post), the antibiotics commonly used in human medicine are not accumulating in your body from the food you eat*†.

The problem with agricultural use is that antibiotic resistant bacteria become more common, which can lead to the spread of either antibiotic resistant genes or antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria into the human population.

Now, you might think I’m being unfair to Klein: after all, antibiotic resistance isn’t his usual beat. But by his own admission, he researched and covered this topic two years ago (and he appears to have made the same error then). Yet he still doesn’t seem to understand the basic features of the problem–those stupid fucking natural history facts of which I’m so fond.

One wonders if this is a unique case. Just asking.

*Some stupid human tricks involving antibiotics are the overuse of antibiotic ointments, antibiotic impregnated bandages, prescription pimple treatments (some of them), and, of course, asking doctors for antibiotics to treat viral infections.

I’m not talking about trivial, trace amounts accumulating in fatty tissue or hair. To be active, they have to accumulate in the gut or the bloodstream at much, much higher levels.

This entry was posted in Antibiotics, News Media. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Technobrat Pundit Follies: The Antibiotic Resistance Edition

  1. Chris P. says:

    I thought – by definition – that sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics were useless in treating or preventing disease. Their sole use in industrial agriculture was to somehow increase the growth of livestock.

  2. dr2chase says:

    I’m curious about the recommended use of antibiotic ointments, since that’s about the only use of antibiotics I make. My thinking had always been that if I applied it only to the vicinity of the dubious (usually, deep-ish) wound that most of my skin would remain populated with vulnerable bacteria. But no?

    Or is this a case of risk/benefit calibration — anything deep enough for stitches present a sufficient infection risk to justify use, mere skin abrasions do not, and the line is somewhere in between?

Comments are closed.