Antibiotics Changed Our Outlook on Life

10greatestbeefinnovationsIn the Beef Producer section of the Farm Progress June Issue, staff compiled a great section on the 10 Greatest Beef Innovations. I think they are all worthy to note, so I’d like to start a series featuring them and adding my input to the new technology in the industry.

The one that caught my attention first was Antibiotics Changed Our Outlook on Life by Alan Newport. Alan notes the importance the of using antibiotics and their historical use to be one of the top innovations in the beef industry. I will pull out pieces to discuss, but you can read the full article here

Only 70 or 80 years ago, the smallest cut or even a little cold could end in death from bacterial infection, for us or for our animals. Since that time, we’ve come to expect our own bodies and the animals we care for are far more likely to live than to die.

How notable is this to today’s animal agriculture! The technology that has progressed from 70 years ago is making a difference in the way we produce livestock and food.

Albert Schatz, who actually discovered streptomycin in October 1943 as a Rutgers University graduate student, says he was driven by a desire to overcome the diseases and suffering he saw around him.

He later wrote: "It is hard to imagine what life was like in the pre-antibiotic era. During my early years in school, some of my classmates, friends and relatives died of infectious diseases. When I worked in army hospitals in World War II, I saw firsthand the tragedy of uncontrollable gram-negative bacteria. They were killing wounded servicemen, some of whom had been flown back to the U.S. from the North African campaign. I isolated and identified the deadly bacteria. That was the easy part. I often spent many hours at night with servicemen as they were dying. That was the hard part."

Can you imagine what people had to go through before antibiotics? I was having this discussion last week about mothers vaccinating their children. Because they have never seen measles or mumps or polio, they really don’t see the need to vaccinate their children. But because of modern technology and medicine, we have these antibiotics and vaccinations to kill bacteria and viruses that are harmful to humans, as well as our animals. We don’t want to vaccinate, yet we don’t want to see BSE in our cattle either.

One could argue the modern antibiotic era began with the discovery of synthetic antimicrobial chemicals known as sulfonamides by a German researcher in 1935. These were a boon to agriculture and human medicine alike. They stopped reproduction of many bacteria.

But they had some problems. One of the worst was potential kidney blockage and damage. The buildup of crystals in the kidneys from administration of these drugs required they be used as little as possible.

On the other hand, folk medicine has used less scientifically prepared antibiotic compounds for centuries. For example:

  • In 3500 B.C., Sumerian doctors gave patients beer soup mixed with snake skins and turtle shells.
  • Babylonian doctors healed the eyes with an ointment of frog bile and sour milk.
  • The Greeks used several herbs to heal ailments.

All of these treatments contained some sort of antibiotic — it just wasn’t isolated. Incidentally, most antibiotic compounds are isolated from bacteria in soil.

We have learned from history, and now can apply what we’ve learned to produce more food, more efficiently and better for the animals and their environment.

The rapid-fire discovery of many antibiotic compounds over 20 to 30 years made the technology seem invincible, and disease after disease fell before the onslaught of these wonderful compounds.

Historically, contagious diseases limited how many animals could be held in any single flock or herd. Confine too many animals, and disease could run rampant.

Antibiotics changed all that. Quickly, the size of livestock operations rose and per-unit production costs fell.

Today more bacteria are increasing resistance to antibiotics, and far fewer new compounds are coming on the market. Both animal and human medicine must increase diligence in using these wonder drugs.

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