It is disturbing to be creating a reality in which incurable infections once again grace our world in high numbers. Antibiotic resistant ailments have been a global concern for some time now as it is well known that the overuse and misuse of antibiotics can lead to resistant strains of infection known as “superbugs”. However the UN is now concerned about the impacts of environmental antimicrobial compounds caused by the release from households, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.

When consumed, either by ill people or as a preventative measure with livestock, antibiotics are not entirely metabolized and are excreted, ending up in our waterways. Water treatment facilities are not entirely capable of filtering out the antibiotics. With the 36% increase in antibiotic use for people and the 67% increase in use with livestock, this issue has become one of the largest UN environmental concerns of the year. This is an unsurprising increase when one considers how nonchalant doctors have become with prescribing antibiotics even when they are unsure of what they are treating.

An estimated 700,000 deaths a year are thought to be caused by these antibiotic resistant illnesses , increasing the importance of understanding how this issue is growing and how its growth can be prevented. A study done by the University of Gothenburg has found that a likely key culprit is air pollution. The study found that of 864 different samples from animals, humans and the environment, the air in the highly polluted Bejing had the highest amount of antibiotic resistant bugs.

The other environmental concern is that of waterways. Though hard to specify exactly, researchers estimate that over 250,000 tonnes of antibiotics are used annually for medical and agricultural use. With up to 80% of doses passing straight through the body, this leads to a huge amount of antibiotic waste. Additionally, the pollution coming from the pharmaceutical manufacturing plants is of concern. Some estimate this results in a 1.4 microgram per litre concentration of antibiotics in freshwater. The end result being that our water sources are becoming intoxicated with resistant bacteria -a situation that has negative influences not just for us, but also our wider environment.

While it may seem like the answer is a reduction in the unnecessary use of antibiotics, there are some who are seeking different solutions. NASA has sent the superbugs to the international space station to see if zero gravity will help in understanding the mutation process. It is thought that the E. Coli may become more resistant to antibiotics in space due to stress and that studying this may give more answers to solving the superbug problem.

Back on the ground, Canadian scientists at McMaster University have found that a combination of an existing antibiotic and another called pentamidine are effective against bacteria resistant to even last resort options. The combination has so far been tested on lab mice, but has shown to be effective against only some superbugs. In the UK, another combination has become available for use. This time a drug similar to penicillin is being combined with a new drug to make called Zavicefta, which is produced by Pfizer.

In a completely different direction, a recent Nation Geographic article outlines the potential benefits of returning to our roots –rather literally. The Brazilian Pepper tree, found in the Southern United States, was used historically used in medicine as far back as 1648. Rather than attempting to kill bacteria as common antibiotics do, the plant prevents communication between the bacterial cells. Cassandra Quave is as ethnobotanist based at Emory University and was quoted in the article saying; “This is a completely different zigzag approach to going after these really bad bugs…”

While the drugs are a short-term solution and the Brazilian Pepper tree an intriguing approach, the reality is bleak. The overwhelming feeling that one gets from researching the topic is that it is yet another situation where incredible levels of retroactive problem solving would be required, alongside huge changes in the medical and agricultural industries. One way or another it is an issue that should concern the general population, because nobody wants incurable gonorrhoea.

By Annalisse Crosswell

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page