Make no mistake: Antibiotics have worked wonders, increasing human life expectancy as have few other public-health measures (let's hear it for vaccines, folks). But about 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to livestock - chiefly chickens, pigs, and cattle - at low doses, which boosts the animals' growth rates. A long-raging debate in the public square concerns the possibility that this widespread practice fosters the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bugs.
But a new study led by Stanford bacteriologist Denise Monack, PhD, and just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adds a brand new wrinkle to concerns about the broad administration of antibiotics: the possibility that doing so may, at least sometimes, actually encourage the spread of disease.
Take salmonella, for example. One strain of this bacterial pathogen, S. typhimurium, is responsible for an estimated 1 million cases of food poisoning, 19,000 hospitalizations and nearly 400 deaths annually in the United States. Upon invading the gut, S. typhimurium produces a potent inflammation-inducing endotoxin known as LPS.
Like its sister strain S. typhi (which causes close to 200,00o typhoid-fever deaths worldwide per year), S. typhimurium doesn't mete out its menace equally. While most get very sick, it is the symptom-free few who, by virtue of shedding much higher levels of disease-causing bacteria in their feces, account for the great majority of transmission. (One asymptomatic carrier was the infamous Typhoid Mary, a domestic cook who, early in the 20th century, cheerfully if unknowingly spread her typhoid infection to about 50 others before being forcibly, and tragically, quarantined for much of the rest of her life.)
You might think giving antibiotics to livestock, whence many of our S. typhi-induced food-poisoning outbreaks derive, would kill off the bad bug and stop its spread from farm animals to those of us (including me) who eat them. But maybe not.
From our release on the study:
When the scientists gave oral antibiotics to mice infected with Salmonella typhimurium, a bacterial cause of food poisoning, a small minority — so called “superspreaders” that had been shedding high numbers of salmonella in their feces for weeks — remained healthy; they were unaffected by either the disease or the antibiotic. The rest of the mice got sicker instead of better and, oddly, started shedding like superspreaders. The findings ... pose ominous questions about the widespread, routine use of sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics in livestock.
So, the superspreaders kept on spreading without missing a step, and the others became walking-dead pseudosuperspreaders. A lose-lose scenario all the way around.
"If this holds true for livestock as well - and I think it will - it would have obvious public health implications," Monack told me. "We need to think about the possibility that we're not only selecting for antibiotic-resistant microbes, but also impairing the health of our livestock and increasing the spread of contagious pathogens among them and us."
Previously: Did microbes mess with Typhoid Mary's macrophages?, Joyride: Brief post-antibiotic sugar spike gives pathogens a lift and What if gut-bacteria communities "remember" past antibiotic exposures?
Photo by Jean-Pierre