The Superbugs in Your Dinner (Bonus: Twitterchat!)

I have a new story up at SELF Magazine, where I’m privileged to do a long and often investigative piece about once a year. This one is close to my heart: It took two years to complete, and in that time I conducted 37 interviews and reviewed several hundred scientific papers.

Here’s what it says: The misuse of antibiotics in agriculture, particularly in livestock-raising, is creating antibiotic-resistant foodborne illnesses that are taking victims and their doctors by surprise.

We talk pretty often here about drug-resistant bacteria arising as a result of farm antibiotic use, and moving off the farm in a variety of ways. There is a lot of dispute, of course, about whether farm-caused antibiotic resistance has much effect on human health, or whether the various resistant illnesses that people contract arise instead from antibiotic misuse in daily life or in hospitals and health care.

But in this case, the illnesses are being caused specifically by classic foodborne bugs that have become resistant and are making people sick when the food is handled or eaten. The evidence is not 100 percent — no evidence ever is — but to me, these illnesses demonstrate the most direct link yet between antibiotic use on farms, and human illness far away from farm areas.

Here are the opening paragraphs, featuring blogger and cancer survivor Lisa Adams:

Lisa Bonchek Adams didn’t think anything could make her sicker than the hell she went through five years ago—a double mastectomy, chemo and the removal of her ovaries. Then she sat down to a meal with a girlfriend in June 2010 and ordered a grilled-chicken salad.

The next afternoon, she was struck with intense nausea and her stomach started rumbling. “Uncontrollable diarrhea,” the 42-year-old recalls with a wince. She tried to wait it out, but 24 hours later, she was seeing blood in her stool. So she begged her doctor to see her on a busy Friday. She gave her an antibiotic and urged her to head straight to the emergency room for IV fluids.

A few days later, test results revealed she had campylobacter, an infection that undercooked chicken can transmit. The doctor gave Adams a second antibiotic, Cipro, which normally knocks out the germ. She took it for 10 days and felt slightly better. Still, the mere thought of eating made her feel faint. She sipped chicken broth, but anything more than a bite of bread roiled her stomach again. “Stick with it,” she recalls the doctor telling her. “When an infection wipes out your intestines, it can take some time to reset.”

But within days of finishing the drugs, Adams found her symptoms had returned in full force. She called her doctor’s office immediately and learned the problem: The campylobacter strain, the doctor surmised, was resistant to both antibiotics she had been given. “I was miserable, and so scared for my health,” she says.

As someone who blogs about cancer, Adams is medically sophisticated. But the possibility that foodborne illness could be resistant to antibiotics had never occurred to her. Nor could she have imagined the damage the bacteria could do. A third prescription killed the infection, but the aftermath stretched on. For four months, she could take in nothing but liquids and the simplest carbs. She was exhausted and couldn’t exercise. When she ventured out to meet friends for dinner, the sight and smell of a steak turned her stomach and made her flee the restaurant. By the time she finally recovered, she had shed more than 20 pounds from her already slim frame. “People would say, ‘What are you doing? Are you running?'” she says. “And I’d think, No, I’m dying.”

The story goes on to relate the experiences of other women and girls who all were made seriously sick by drug-resistant bacteria that traveled on food and that confounded their doctors when they went for treatment, and raises questions about other types of illnesses that may be traceable to farm antibiotic misuse as well.

Now: Bonus! With SELF’s help, Lisa and I are going to conduct a Twitterchat tomorrow (Thursday, June 7), starting at 4 pm ET and going for an hour. To participate, follow me (@marynmck), Lisa (@adamslisa) or SELF (@SELFMagazine), or watch for the hashtag #superbugs. Send us your questions in advance or during the chat. We really want to hear from you.




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