There’s a time bomb ticking that is going to affect us all. Whether you are a sub-Saharan subsistence farmer or a New Yorker buying a super-smoothie in Wholefoods, there will be no escape. The threat? An invisible army of super-resistant bacteria is on the march. Antibiotics, the drugs that have saved millions of lives and are critical for the world’s health and wellbeing, have become a victim of their own success. Their overuse and misuse have helped bacteria and other infectious bugs to develop resistance to them, meaning that many infections are no longer effectively treatable by current medicines. Every year 700,000 people die of drug-resistant infections, and experts predict that this number could rise to 10 million.
On top of this, recent research points to a possible link between antibiotics and obesity, as well as type 2 diabetes and asthma. If the link with obesity sounds surprising, it shouldn’t. Antibiotics have been used not just to combat sickness, but to promote weight gain and faster growth in farm animals for several decades. In fact, around 70% of antibiotics in the US are given to livestock, and this has a knock-on effect on human health, as the resistant strains of bacteria get into the food chain and are consumed by us. Antibiotic residues have also been found in crops that have been fertilised with manure from livestock and in the water supply – so going vegan does not guarantee protection. We risk entering a post-antibiotic era where routine operations such as hip replacements and cancer treatment, which rely on effective antibiotic medicines, will become much more dangerous, and people will die of common infections as they did 100 years ago.
This is a global problem, whose impact will be felt by everyone everywhere. To beat it, people and communities need to get informed and engaged. We are going to have to take urgent action at every level, from governments right down to the individual consumer. That’s why Intelligence Squared, in partnership with the World Health Organization and the Wellcome Trust, brought together an international panel of speakers from science, agriculture, food production and consumer activism, to discuss what is being done and must be done to reverse the situation for the long term. The event took place on September 14th at the New York Academy of Sciences, one week ahead of the high level United Nations meeting on the subject.