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FIRST-PERSON: Antibiotics & our future

KENOVA, W.Va. (BP) — Since we don’t live in a major metropolitan area, I never dreamed that our town would be part of an issue touching all Americans’ lives — the overuse of antibiotics in our food supply.

In picking up a prescription from our local pharmacy last year, I innocently asked pharmacist Rick Griffith (also our mayor in Kenova, W.Va.) if I should finish the entire four-week prescription if I felt fine after two weeks.

“Not only should you finish the prescription,” Griffith replied, “but you owe it to your fellow man to do so.”

The reason: Every time someone takes an antibiotic, weaker strains of bacteria are quickly and most easily destroyed. While this often leads to temporary relief, stronger bacteria can remain. Unless I finished the prescription I would make the resistant bacteria stronger, Griffith explained.

Otherwise, he warned, “you’ve inoculated the bacteria so that it becomes immune to the antibiotic it was exposed to, and it will take a more powerful antibiotic to destroy it in the future.”

It doesn’t stop there. Although I may feel well, I could pass along that stronger bacteria to someone else. If the next person fails to kill the strain, that bacteria becomes even more resistant to antibiotics. On it goes until we end up with serious problems. Hospitals everywhere are having a terrible time trying to treat people with these infections, Griffith said.

If something doesn’t change, the veteran pharmacist said these evolving bacteria could become so resistant to antibiotics that we will have to develop something else to fight the infectious diseases that simple penicillin previously cured.

Then Griffith said something that knocked my socks off: “It’s not just human consumption of antibiotics that is causing the problems. We’re feeding so many drugs to animals right now, it’s beyond belief.”

I never would have thought our nation’s problems with overeating and antibiotics are interrelated. Nearly half of all antibiotics used in the United States are administered to animals, a process that is leading to antibiotic resistance in humans.

A primary reason our farm animals need so many drugs is because many in the food industry pack animals into concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) instead of allowing them to grow in open fields like animals have done for thousands of years.

In these CAFOs, animals stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the corn trough in their own manure and urine. This spreads illnesses among them, such as Mad Cow disease and infections from E. coli and other dangerous bacteria.

At the heart of our problem lie meat-driven diets that have stimulated a three-to-one ratio of livestock to human beings. The need to quickly fatten animals leads ultimately to chopping down more forests to grow more corn, which reduces access to antibiotics God has provided through nature.

The net result, said Griffith: “It causes us to depend more on pharmaceutical companies to develop manmade, synthetic antibiotics, which are very, very costly.”

So how is this relevant to the average Southern Baptist? It matters because good health and caring for our environment are moral issues. We not only have an obesity problem, our food consumption is leading to things like increased resistance to antibiotics and deforestation.

And people are dying because of it.

Earlier this year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed limiting the use of certain antibiotics on factory farms. While this attempt failed, this battle isn’t over. Average citizens can continue to press Congress to curtail such abuses of our food system.

You can make a difference at the grassroots level. Food and retail companies respond quickly to consumer demand. If not, they go out of business. If we don’t buy their product, they quit producing it.

Start asking your grocer and favorite restaurants about the sources of their meat and poultry and what methods were used to get it to you.

The path from farm, to table, to a visit to the drug store is a long and complex chain. In the end, your health and our nation’s survival are at stake. It is time for churches and concerned citizens to get involved.
Steve Willis is lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Kenova, W.Va., and author of “Winning the Food Fight” (Regal 2012).

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  • Steve Willis