Antibiotics: When “cheap and now” turns deadly

There’s a more responsible and sustainable way to live.

By John Chandler

In his 1945 speech accepting the Nobel Prize for discovering penicillin, Alexander Fleming proved himself to be a prophet as well as a scientist. While hailing the cure for diseases that killed scores of our ancestors, and promising treatments that would revolutionize world health, Fleming also warned of a day in which antibiotics would be used indiscriminately. The costs of doing this, he predicted, could be catastrophic.

According to Tom Friedan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that day is here. “If we’re not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era. In fact, for some patients and some microbes, we are already there.” The CDC’s 2013 report lists 17 antibiotic-resistant microorganisms that caused at least 23,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Globally, there is a new mushrooming of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, killing an estimated 170,000 people in 2012.

What are the sources of antibiotic overuse? Harvard research targets over-prescription for doctor visits related to sore throats and bronchitis, which are almost always viral (not bacterial) and against which antibiotics are useless. In two out of three doctor visits for sore throat, antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily; for acute bronchitis, it’s every three out of four visits.

Strikingly, 80 percent of the antibiotics used in our country are given to animals. Rather than alleviating animal overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, the U.S. meat and poultry industries overwhelmingly funnel antibiotics into animals to accelerate their growth and mask their illnesses. Most penicillin today “tastes like chicken.”

Why the topic of antibiotics in a Baptist column? Aside from our concerns for global health and communal well-being, antibiotic overuse is an indicator of a couple of larger trends about which Baptists better be aware. One is our national obsession with “cheaper” and “instant.” Do you really want to pay a dollar less for that hamburger that comes from a jacked-up-on-drugs cow? Do you really need a Z-pack called in for the sniffles without seeing a doctor?

So, dear Baptists, here’s how to be counter-cultural today. Wash your hands. Tough out a runny nose. Read the food label. And don’t settle for our cultural values of “cheap and now” when there is a more sustainable and responsible way to live.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.