Saturday, April 04, 2009

Evolution in Action

By Diana Hsieh

Back in January, I blogged about the routine use of antibiotics in livestock. As I explained, I'm opposed to the practice, particularly due to its potential to create resistant strains of bacteria harmful if not deadly to humans. Not long after I wrote that post, I found this report from Scientific American: A New Strain of Drug-Resistant Staph Infection Found in U.S. Pigs. Here's a bit from the article:

A strain of drug-resistant staph identified in pigs in the Netherlands five years ago, which accounts for nearly one third of all staph in humans there, has been found in the U.S. for the first time, according to a new study. Seventy percent of 209 pigs and nine of 14 workers on seven linked farms in Iowa and Illinois were found to be carrying the ST398 strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

The study marks the first time researchers have tested for the strain in the U.S., so there's no way yet to tell when or how it arrived or how widespread it may be, says Tara Smith, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and lead author of the study published today in the online Public Library of Science journal, PLoS ONE. The infection "could be due to movement of animals from farm to farm, or it could be de novo acquisition of [resistance] on this farm," she says. "It is such a small sample that we don't know whether it has larger significance or not."
The article is short, but it includes quite a bit of detail. I definitely recommend reading it in full if you're interested enough to form even a preliminary opinion on this topic.

Personally, I'd very much like to see more research on the effects of the the routine use of antibiotics in livestock. Based on our general knowledge of evolution and antibiotics, we have good reason to think that the practice would create antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, including strains harmful if not deadly to persons and property. Based on the above quote from the researcher -- a different Tara Smith than the author of Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics, I imagine -- the matter hasn't been studied in any substantial or systematic way. Consequently, the dangers could be very real, yet largely unknown. Or they could be minimal. It would be good to know one way or the other.

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