We hear a lot about drugs: from kids peddling heroin in London’s inner cities to students huffing nitrous oxide in their bedrooms. Legal drug use, however, sometimes escapes our attention, and this is regrettable as its effects can be more significant. I have written before on the overuse of antibiotics, both when they are prescribed to men, women and children and when they are pumped into animals, and there have been intriguing developments on this front.
The US Centers for Disease Control has claimed that the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria sends 23,000 Americans to their deaths each year. Richard Schiffman observes that most of the antibiotics consumed in the US are administered to livestock, because, in part, it fattens the poor creatures up before their deaths. This is dangerous, and disgusting, but it is far from being the single factor. Men, women and children, who can spread bacteria amongst themselves in a more direct manner, are prescribed antibiotics in millions of cases where they are quite unnecessary. Modern populations have become addicted to drugs, as a means of defending themselves from the slightest illness, and in one of the grim ironies of existence it appears to be threatening them with grave sickness.
This is not a national problem, though. It has been globalised. Developing countries have embraced antibiotics as a cheap, convenient way of satisfying patients, and a cheap, convenient way to further the growth of meat production. The Indian government have admitted that between a fifth and a half of antibiotic prescription in the country is unnecessary, while in China the average person consumes many more times the amount of antibiotics than the hardly abstemious Americans. These rates have, it’s claimed, been falling as officials grow wary of the pharmaceutical feasting they have overseen, but the expansion of hog, poultry and cow farming seems to be shifting the consumption elsewhere.
The effects of these trends can already be observed. A Chinese study found “diverse, abundant, and potentially mobile [antibiotic resistant genes] in farm samples”, while patients in hospitals have also teemed with them. Scientists are claiming that illnesses such as tuberculosis and Shigella infections are becoming harder to cure. A Swedish tourist who was treated in New Delhi, meanwhile, was found to have picked up a strain of bacteria that was extraordinarily powerful in resisting drugs. This proves to us that this is a concern for everyone. Professor Matthew Cooper of the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre has observed that, “Animals get transported between countries, as do people. Infectious disease is no longer a national issue, it’s a global issue.”
The scientific and technological knowledge of civilisations need not advance in lockstep with their sagacity and moral conviction. So, the modern world has been so enamoured of the convenience and profitability of this most wondrous example of medical progress that it has exploited it regardless of potential hazards. As for ethics, well, the gross distending of animals in the vast new meat production industries of developing nations shows, as was already proved on Western factory farms, that modernisation can only expand the scale on which cruelty is practiced. China, for example, where horses and dogs are dined upon and bears are slaughtered for their bile, is home to even less concern for animals than Europe or America, and countless pigs, chickens and cows on its ever enlarging farms are doomed to lives of pain. It is when we are sensitive to the effects of our behaviour on all creatures that we might succeed in making it less destructive.