Left unchecked, drug-resistant bacteria due to antibiotic pollution have the potential to unleash a much larger and deadlier pandemic
There was a time when antibiotic resistance in human beings and animal pathogens was not common. But today, multi-drug resistant bacteria have become fairly commonplace, posing a major challenge to our healthcare providers and increasing human fatality rates. Scientific evidence is suggestive of the fact that antibiotic resistance genes and antibiotics in the environment are playing a major role in perpetuating a new health crisis. Some of the major sources are waste from large-scale animal farms, waste water from antibiotic manufacturing firms and refuse from hospitals. Manure, or compost especially, is a worrying source of this antibiotic contamination. With no standardisation or mandatory testing of the end product, the largely locally-produced manure and compost products that are used on a large-scale are replete with antibiotic residues and resistant bacteria.
As COVID-19 rages on, the probability of large-scale drug resistant infections suddenly seems very possible. According to the publication, Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, 7,00,000 people die each year globally due to resistant infections and this figure is only set to grow in the coming days. It further estimates that by 2050, a whopping 10 million lives would be at risk globally due to resistant strains of infections that would progressively weaken the immune system to such a level that the human body would find it difficult to defend itself against even small diseases such as urinary tract infections. This is because human bodies will become colonised by these harmful bacteria. Antibiotics also provide a selection pressure for environmental bacteria to maintain antibiotic resistance mechanisms.
Thankfully, there is an increasing awareness the world over concerning the spike in the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the environment. In the US, urban river bodies and river bed sediments in cities like Baltimore are already showing heightened levels of antibiotics. Following this, the city municipal councils, in association with the environment authorities in the US, are taking extraordinary measures to contain the pollution in local water bodies. India must look at the global developments and immediately undertake initiatives to understand the depth of antibiotic pollution in its own environment. This is critical because antibiotic pollution-triggered superbug infections are already wrecking havoc, with nearly 60,000 newborns dying each year in the country due to them.
To stem the proliferation of antibiotic pollution, India will need to list all the potential contamination and breeding hotspots. According to studies, antibiotic pollution is the highest in wastewater treatment plants, as this is the place where bacteria from the environment meets with human pathogenic ones, leading to the genesis of new and virulent strains. Apart from this, India, apart from China, happens to be the world’s largest manufacturer of antibiotics and is known to discharge high levels of these waste effluents into the air and the water. This contamination has been happening for decades in the country and is understood to be the epicentre of the birth of superbug infections that are resistant to all known medication.
Albeit a little too late, the authorities in the country have woken up to the threat posed by this, especially through river bodies. A draft Bill issued in January seeks to limit the concentration levels of antibiotic waste released by manufacturing units into the environment in order to ensure that the risk to human health is minimised. Though it is late in coming, this development has immediately caught the attention of the international research community specialising in antibiotic pollution of the environment. The Department of Antibiotic Resistance Research at the Gothenburg University called the Indian Government’s draft Bill a “great leap forward” to contain the problem.
Though a welcome step in the right direction, the draft Bill still has a long way to go. The Government must initiate stringent crackdown on pharma units engaged in manufacturing antibiotics to regularly reveal the scale, quality and limit of their effluent discharge into the surrounding environment such as water bodies. Additionally, the information must also reflect on the official web portals of the said companies so that international and national clients are aware of the environmental accountability of the firm and transparency of data. Measures such as these will coerce these companies into following environmental and human health norms or be labelled as polluters and pay heavy fines.
Left unchecked, drug-resistant bacteria due to antibiotic pollution have the potential to unleash a much larger and deadlier pandemic. The consequences need to be understood and counter measures taken rapidly to avoid this eventuality.
(The writer is an environmental journalist)