Everyone’s running their mouth about COP15 this week. No progress will be made; great progress will be made!; developed countries won’t put enough money on the table; developed countries will put enough money on the table!; Obama’s all talk; Obama’s all action; we'll never keep it under 2 degrees Celsius; we WILL keep it under 2 degrees Celsius! It wears a person down, you know? Let’s set COP15 aside for a moment, and talk about something manageable, like supergerms!

Those friendly ARIs (antibiotic resistant infections) like MRSA, and the deadly strain of TB a man recently carried onto a plane. Thanks to antibiotic overuse in our medical system and in the meat industry – which keeps chickens, pigs, cows and turkeys hopped up on daily doses of antibiotics, just so they don’t croak due to the horribly unhealthy living conditions they endure – supergerms are making their happy little way out into the general population in hordes.

A recent study from the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA) and the John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County revealed some inconvenient truths about the economics of antibiotic overuse and our medical system’s uphill battle against ARIs. Apparently, the healthcare system, ARI victims, and those who financially support ARI victims are coughing up a whopping $20 billion annually to fight these nasty supergerms.

Titled "Hospital and Societal Costs of Antimicrobial Resistant Infections in a Chicago Teaching Hospital: Implications for Antibiotic Stewardship," APUA’s study took a sample population of 1,391 hospital patients (this was in 2000), and followed the costs of their treatments for the duration of their stay. 188 of the original 1,391 patients had ARIs when the study began. Patients suffering from ARIs were kept in the hospital for about six to thirteen extra days, and racked up bills on the order of $18,588 to $29,069.

It’s not just money, either. The study, funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that patients with ARIs are more than two times more likely to die from their infections than patients with non-resistant bacterial infections.

Here’s what you can do about it:

  1. 1.       Wash your hands frequently and take all the usual precautions to fend off ARIs in the first place. Going overboard with the antibiotic soaps and hand cleaners, however, is actually counterproductive.
  2. 2.       If you do become infected with any bacterial illness which requires antibiotic treatment, take your medication exactly as prescribed. Be vigilant. Each time a patient skips days in their treatment, diminishes the effectiveness of pills by swigging them down with alcohol, or “feels better” and decides not to finish the rest of their antibiotic prescription, they run the risk of not wiping the infection completely out, and needing another round of pills to finish it off. The more often you take antibiotic treatments, the less effective they become for you personally.
  3. 3.       At the grocery store or farmers’ market, buy meat from chickens, turkeys, cows and pigs raised without antibiotics. Any other animal you buy spent its life on drugs, harming its health and yours.
  4. 4.       Give your money to institutions that care: seek out restaurants that make a point of serving meat from healthy, untreated animals.
  5. Finally, as the Union of Concerned Scientists pleaded in their most recent Food and Environment Electronic Digest: “tell your representatives in Congress to cosponsor legislation to protect valuable antibiotics for use in humans rather than feeding them to livestock that are not sick.”
  6. 6.       Learn more: check out the study abstract, published in issue 15 of Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Wow. That was a downer. Some trivia to lighten the mood: your body hosts some 2 quadrillion bacterial cells at any given moment. Which means you’re made of 20 times more bacterial cells than actual human cells.