Dhaka, Bangladesh
How economics killed antibiotic dream

OFF THE TRACK

How economics killed antibiotic dream

On a ramshackle pig farm near Wuxi, in Jiangsu province, China, a foreigner gets out of a taxi. The family are surprised. Their little farm is at the end of a bumpy track through rice paddies, and they do not get many foreigners asking to use the toilet. The stranger’s name is Philip Lymbery, and he runs a campaigning group called Compassion in World Farming. As he explains in his book about intensive farming, he is not there to berate the farmers about their pigs’ living conditions, although sows are crammed uncomfortably into crates. Mr Lymbery is there to investigate whether pig manure is polluting the local waterways. He has tried unsuccessfully to visit local large, commercial farms, so has turned up on spec at a family farm instead. The farmer is happy to talk. Yes, they dump waste in the river. No, they are not supposed to. But they just bribe the local official. Then, Mr Lymbery notices a pile of needles for antibiotics. Have they been prescribed by a vet? No, the farmer explains. You don’t need a prescription to buy antibiotics. And anyway, vets are expensive. Antibiotics are cheap. The farmer has very little money, so she injects her pigs with them routinely, hoping it will stop them getting sick. She is far from alone. Cramped and dirty conditions on intensive farms are breeding grounds for disease. Routine, low antibiotic doses can help to stop it spreading. Antibiotics also fatten animals, which means more money for farmers. Scientists are studying gut microbes to understand why. No wonder more antibiotics are injected into healthy animals than sick humans. In the big emerging economies - where demand for meat grows as incomes rise - use of agricultural antibiotics is set to double in 20 years. Widespread unnecessary use of antibiotics is not restricted to agriculture. Many doctors are guilty, too. They should know better - as should regulators who let people buy antibiotics over the counter. Meanwhile, bacteria are busily evolving resistance to drugs, and public health experts fear we are entering a post-antibiotic age. One recent review estimated drug-resistant bugs could kill 10 million people a year by 2050 - more than currently die from cancer. It is hard to put a monetary cost on antibiotics becoming useless, but the review tried: $1tn (£790bn). The story of antibiotics starts with a healthy dose of serendipity.

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