To Stop an Avalanche

It sometimes seems like we’re surrounded by avalanches—massive problems that have formed, one flake at a time, from innumerable small, careless actions. Drug-resistant bacteria are one of those avalanche issues, lumbering down the mountainside, threatening to crush us. Like other slow-moving disasters, one wonders whether the damage can be somehow reversed in time.

It turns out there is some evidence that we can partially reverse the flow of this event. A study of preserved bear skulls from Scandinavia explored the makeup of their dental calculus. I say again, researchers scraped the crispy stuff off antique dead bear teeth (Swedish brown bears, to be exact, dated 1842-2016) and found that their mouth microbes had left behind DNA evidence that can still be analyzed today. Drug-resistant DNA markers started to appear more and more densely as antibiotic use became more widespread. The amount of mutated DNA was observed to vary with time but was not dependent upon geography, meaning that even samples from bears in uninhabited parts of the country were riddled with antibiotic-resistant genes. This indicates, sadly, that the consequences of our actions are even more far-reaching than we might have guessed. This report did contain good news in the form of diminishing drug-resistant DNA after Sweden outlawed the agricultural use of antibiotics in 1986. There was approximately a 15-year lag time, but measurable reductions were observed in antibiotic resistance capability.

The bear study suggests that changes in policy can partially reverse the trend in antibiotic resistance; therefore, politicians and their constituents can shift a lot of weight in this equation if they so choose. Farmers, physicians, and veterinarians have an important part to play, too. Individual consumers can help by choosing organic meat, milk, and eggs when possible; these animals don’t consume massive amounts of antibiotics like conventionally farmed cattle and birds. Of course, that will cost a little more. When your physician tries to send you home without a prescription, don’t fight it. This may cause you more anxiety at first, if you’ve always placed your faith in pills.

Even your dog or cat can make a difference in this important global issue. When pets have stomach trouble, a food change and/or brief fast is better in the long run than antimicrobial prescriptions. That new diet or probiotic regimen might be more expensive, but it’s much better for the planet. For pets with skin conditions, it’s best to seek out the root of the problem instead of taking repeated courses of antimicrobial medicine. This might mean adopting a special diet or controlling allergy on an everyday basis, rather than seeking out a temporary fix several times a year. It’s always better to treat the surface of the skin than bombard the patient with antibiotic pills, but you will notice that treating the skin itself is usually more tedious and time-consuming. 

In short, it won’t be easy if you want to be the snowflake that refuses to participate in this particular avalanche, but keep the faith. The Swedes have a bucket full of bear teeth that say it can be done.

Dr. M.S. Regan