The emergence of new strains of bacteria which can resist antibiotics or digest processed foodstuffs in our guts shows the law of unintended consequences operates everywhere

The first case anywhere in the world of a strain of gonorrhea resistant to all known antibiotics was reported late last month. The diagnosis was made in England, but it appears that the infection came from an encounter in south-east Asia. Antibiotic resistance is a global problem, and can’t be confined to any one part of the world for long. Last autumn a woman died in the US of an infection apparently picked up in an Indian hospital which was impervious to all 14 antibiotics in her hospital; later tests showed it was also resistant to the other 12 drugs available to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The dangers of antibiotic resistance are by now well understood, even if action to diminish them is slow and uncoordinated. The growth of superbugs is not just caused by overprescription in developed countries and completely uncontrolled usage in developing countries, where they are rationed only by price. It is also a product of the widespread use of antibiotics in factory farming, where they are used to keep animal populations at a density which would be impossible in nature. In all these cases, we have set up evolutionary pressures which favour the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, and evolution has responded in its usual creative way. Around half of the detected cases of infection with the campylobacter bacterium in chickens in British shops involve antibiotic-resistant strains. Campylobacter is unpleasant, but seldom deadly, and can in any case be killed by thorough cooking.

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