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Superbugs: Is this the final warning?

by Simon Martin(more info)

listed in infections, originally published in issue 32 - September 1998

Although critics of orthodox medicine's over-reliance on antibiotics have been sounding the alarm on behalf of a long-suffering public for at least the last ten years, previous warnings have been ignored.

Now as fears grow that serious infections such as tuberculosis and meningitis could soon become untreatable. The Department of Health and the British Medical Association, the professional body representing doctors, are putting the blame on the public. They have announced that they are to launch a campaign – not aimed at drug companies and doctors, but at the public – with the aim of teaching us that antibiotics are damaging the nation's health!

Superbug Armour

The Government's Chief Medical Officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, has announced that microbiologists at the Public Health Laboratory have been tracking the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria and will issue a report with recommendations aimed at hospital doctors and GPs about the proper use of antibiotics.[1] However, the main thrust of publicity will be to stop the public from expecting and demanding antibiotic treatment.

The Government has also announced that it is to ask the European Union to begin to control the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animals.[1]

Meat farmers routinely dose their stock with antibiotics as it increases their weight. There are fears that this practice has helped create animal 'reservoirs' of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The National Farmers' Union, completely missing the point, have responded by claiming that 99.9 per cent of meat can be found to contain no trace of drugs fed to animals.

In the last two years fears have grown that pneumonia and tuberculosis are once more becoming common, killer diseases.

Many of Britain's hospitals are colonised by bacteria that are resistant to almost all the drugs that used to stop them dead, and the number of patients being infected in hospitals is increasing world-wide.[2] Incidence of infection with drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in England has increased from around 1.8% in 1989-1991 to 21.1% during 1996.[3] Around 150 British hospitals a month are reporting MRSA infections.[4] There has been a steady increase in food poisoning, too – from only 1,000 formal cases in 1980 to a record 100,000 in 1997, while GPs are said to be under-reporting food poisoning cases by a factor of 24.[5] Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have estimated that some 50 million of the 150 million outpatient prescriptions for antibiotics every year are unneeded.[6]

According to the World Health Organisation, the bugs are developing resistance to antibiotics faster than drug companies can develop new ones.

"This resistance problem is one that I think is going to be a major plague for the coming century", predicts Ralph Henderson, WHO's assistant director.

Scientists fear we will return to the days before penicillin, when routine infections will once again become killers. Babies, children and the elderly are particularly at risk of serious long-term illness or even death.

Unfortunately, it's not just a question of getting us to stop popping antibiotics for the slightest infection.

All our farm animals are regularly dosed with antibiotics, not just for infections but also as growth promoters.[7] More than 40% of antibiotics manufactured in the US are given to animals.[6] As a result, one strain of the food poisoning bug Salmonella has already developed multiple drug resistance and has spread throughout British cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry.[8] Scientists have already discovered this strain in humans and suspect it hitched a ride in either sausages, chicken or burgers.

Birmingham University microbiologists have found that 1 in 4 chickens bought in British supermarkets contain food poisoning bacteria resistant to commonly prescribed antibiotics which are similar to another drug widely used in battery farming.

Cooking doesn't kill all these Superbugs and neither does pasteurisation: another microbe, suspected of causing Crohn's disease, a serious inflammatory condition of the bowel, has been found in shop-bought cow's milk. Ministry of Agriculture tests found one in 30 samples of pork and eggs contaminated with antibiotics above government safety levels. And scientists at a European seminar blamed antibiotics used by farmers for an up to ten per cent rise in food poisoning cases. In America, a study at Rutgers University found that antibiotics used at levels deemed safe for human consumption by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) increased the rate of development of resistant bacteria by 600-2,700 per cent.

Dr Peter Wilson, lecturer in microbiology at University College Hospital in London, has said that breaches of known safety limits were endangering the elderly, the sick and those with compromised immune systems – which, as we have seen, includes everyone with chronic Candida overgrowth.

Perhaps the most worrying Superbug is a type of everyday Staphylococcus, which can cause skin infections, abscesses and is often implicated in food poisoning. Now virtually resident in intensive care and surgical units, it is resistant to all but one type of antibiotic.[9] In the last year we recorded the increasing power of this bug, as it conquered that final antibiotic defence, first in a Japanese hospital, where a youngster died as a result, and later in America.[10] It is only a matter of time before doctors have nothing left with which to treat this Staph, and other untreatable infections will follow. Meanwhile, in their efforts to wipe out persistent Superbug infections, doctors are using antibiotic after antibiotic, often in massive doses, which is wreaking havoc in our own digestive systems, as the drugs wipe out our colonies of helpful bacteria, important for protection against disease and for producing some of our vitamins. This has paved the way for an emerging epidemic – so far unrecognised by the medical profession – of chronic Candida overgrowth.

Candida, normally an innocuous yeast that lives in and on our bodies, grows back quicker than our protective bacteria following antibiotic use. Once dominant in our guts, it can turn into a fungal form, putting down root-like threads that punch holes in our intestines and allow toxins and food particles to leak into the bloodstream. An immune system 'red alert' can follow, as well as a classic 'tired all the time' syndrome with many other symptoms.

Naturopathic physician Dr Joseph Pizzorno, ND, comments that "Candida overgrowth is an all too common result of antibiotics given to hospitalised patients." In his book Total Wellness he reports on a 1993 study which found that every single one of 55 patients admitted to one hospital's casualty department was given broad-spectrum antibiotics. Blood tests showed that 67 per cent of them developed Candida overgrowth. The researchers also found that immune system white blood cells from patients with overgrowth were not able to stop Candida growing as effectively as white blood cells from those patients who had remained clear of Candida.

"In other words", says Dr Pizzorno, "when patients receive antibiotics, the level of Candida in their intestines increases so much and the intestines become so damaged, that pieces of the Candida leak into their blood and inhibit the function of their immune systems."[11]

Luckily there is a way out. Some doctors and natural health practitioners are already using natural antibiotics that are effective against microbes but do not seem to breed resistance. In at least one case, research also suggests that "helpful" bacteria are not wiped out along with the potentially harmful microbes (see box).

Microbiologist Dr Nigel Plummer, PhD, says, "The normal flora of the gut are known to be important in preventing infections. But antibiotics can have a devastating effect on them, sometimes eliminating them completely. Probiotics may well play a very important role in re-establishing normal flora."

Tests have shown that when our 'friendly' bacteria are in place, it takes one million salmonella organisms to cause disease. Incredibly, when they are not there, it takes only ten.

Tea tree oil is the number one alternative antibiotic according to aromatherapy pioneer Robert Tisserand, principal of the Tisserand Institute. "We now have lab studies showing it is effective against MRSA, the type of Staph that is causing real problems in hospitals," he says.

"What we now need to see are clinical trials." In fact this 1995 study showed tea tree oil to work against two different types of antibiotic- resistant Staph, making it one of the brightest hopes for the future control of Superbugs.

"Antibiotic drugs are single, relatively simple chemical compounds and that's why bacteria can adapt to them so quickly," says Dr David Hill, senior lecturer in microbiology at the University of Wolverhampton. In contrast, natural oils contain many different compounds and micro-organisms cannot adapt to them all. Dr Hill and his team were the first to discover that concentrated garlic oil is a highly effective bug-killer. Fresh garlic was used by the Egyptians and recommended by Hippocrates in the first century AD to treat infections, but this new extract is slightly more powerful – one teaspoonful is equivalent to one kg (2.2lb) of fresh garlic bulbs. So far, it has inhibited every bacteria against which it has been tested.

That includes fungi, yeasts and Candida. Dr Hill also discovered that the microbes that can cause disease appear to be naturally more sensitive to garlic oil than 'friendly' bacteria.

The Wolverhampton scientists may also have achieved a breakthrough with their testing of a commercial plant extract product called Candicidin, a combination of extracts of spices oregano, clove and ginger, along with the herb Artemisia and borage seed oil. They have found that the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, a major cause of stomach and duodenal ulcers, is extremely sensitive to this natural complex. Like Candida, Helicobacter is difficult to eradicate, because it lives in the stomach and is becoming resistant even to cocktails of antibiotics.

Even if Superbugs cannot be killed outright, it is possible to help the immune system recover, according to Naturopathic consultant Leon Chaitow, ND, senior lecturer at Westminster University and author of a forthcoming book on antibiotic misuse: "One of the real problems with the Superbugs is their interaction with other co-factors such as Candida," he says. "An immune compromised person with Candida who picks up one of the super Staphs can find themselves with toxic shock or another condition called scalded skin syndrome." The theory is that if the Candida is dealt with and its output of immune-suppressive and metabolism- altering toxins is stopped, the immune system stands a better chance of throwing off other infections, even without antibiotics.

Further Information

Candicidin is a BioCare product, available through your health food store. Also highly recommended is BioCare's Replete, a high-dose, intense probiotic supplement, intended to be used to help restore the healthy balance of bacteria in the gut after antibiotic treatment.

This article contains material adapted from Simon Martin's new paperback Candida, published by Element in their The Natural Way series, priced £2.99. Copyright 1998 by Simon Martin. All rights reserved.

Natural alternatives to antibiotics:

* Echinacea, a highly-researched immune system stimulant herb originally used by the North American Indians. Many other herbs, such as Goldenseal, also have promising anti-bacterial effects.
* Garlic and garlic extract, found in laboratory tests to be as effective as modern drugs in preventing bacterial growth.
* Vitamin C, zinc and other infection-fighting, immune-supportive nutrients.
* Tea tree oil, the Australian all-purpose first-aid essential oil with incredible anti-bacterial, antiseptic and anti-fungal properties.
* Probiotics, supplements of the "friendly" Lactobacillus and Bifido bacteria that live in our guts; they stop the overgrowth of parasites such as Candida, but can be wiped out by antibiotics.

References:

1. Times, Friday April 24, 1998. Resistance to Antibiotics and Other Antimicrobial Agents, a report by a specialist subcommittee of the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology is available from the Stationery Office, price £13.30.
2. Cookson, B. Is it time to stop searching for MRSA? Screening is still important. Brit Med J, 1997; 314: 664 (1 March).
3. Johnson AP, James D. Continuing increase in invasive methicillin-resistant infection. Lancet, 1997; 350: 1710 (6 December).
4. Abbasi, K. Report calls for action on antibiotic resistance. Brit Med J, 1998; 316: 1261 (25 April) .
5. Food Safety, the fourth report of the agriculture committee, is available from the Stationery Office, price £10.60.
6. Levy, SB. The challenge of antibiotic resistance. Scientific American, March 1998.
7. Resistance to Antibiotics and Other Antimicrobial agents, op cit.
8. World Health Organisation: Meeting on the medical impact of the use of antimicrobial drugs in food animals, Berlin, October 1997, quoted in The Cause (Careful Antibiotic Use to Prevent Resistance), Centers for Disease Control, Vol 2, Jan 1998.
9. Cox RA, et al. A major outbreak of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus caused by a new phage-type (EMRSA-16). J Hosp Infect, 1995; 29: 87-106.
10. Uttley AHC, et al. High level vancomycin-resistant enterococci causing hospital infection. Epidemiol Infect, 1989; 103: 173-181.
11. Pizzorno, J. Total Wellness. Prima (1996).

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About Simon Martin

Simon Martin is an award-winning natural health journalist who is a former editor of Here's Health magazine and the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. He currently edits Health Guardian, a bi-monthly paper distributed in independent health food stores, and is consultant editor to the Journal of Sports Therapy. He is a nutrition advisor and associate member of the Fellowship of Sports Masseurs and Therapists. Contact him at PO Box 12932, London N8 8WL.

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