Tackling the problem of antibiotic resistance at (one) source In the past year or so there has been a slew of high-level meetings pointing to antibiotic resistance as a growing threat to human well-being. But then, resistance was always an inevitable, Darwinian consequence of antibiotic use. Well before penicillin was widely available, Ernst Chain, who went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work on penicillin, noted that some bacteria were capable of neutralising the antibiotic. What is new about the recent pronouncements and decisions is that the use of antibiotics in agriculture is being recognised, somewhat belatedly, as a major source of resistance. Antibiotic manufacturers and the animal health industry have, since the start, done everything they can to deny that. Indeed, the history of efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics in agriculture reveals a pretty sordid approach to public health. But while it can be hard to prove the connection between agriculture and a specific case of antibiotic resistance, a look at hundreds of recent academic studies showed that almost three quarters of them did demonstrate a conclusive link. Antibiotic resistance – whether it originates with agriculture or inappropriate medical use – takes us back almost 100 years, when infectious diseases we now consider trivial could, and did, kill. It reduces the effectiveness of other procedures too, such as surgery and chemotherapy, by making it more likely that a subsequent infection will wreck the patient’s prospects. So it imposes huge costs on society as a whole. Maybe society as a whole needs to tackle the problem. The Oxford Martin School, which supports a portfolio of highly interdisciplinary research groups at Oxford University, has a Programme on Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease. They recently published a paper proposing a tax on animal products produced with antibiotics. Could that possibly work?
Here’s another great example of a negative externality. Too often capitalism brushes over these and creates a larger longer term cost by not taking these into account. It’s almost assuredly the case that taxing the use of these types of antibiotics across the broadest base of users (eaters) (thereby minimizing the overall marginal cost), would help to minimize the use of these or at least we’d have the funding for improving the base issue in the future. In some sense, the additional cost of eating organic meat is similar to this type of “tax”, but the money is allocated in a different way.
Not covered here are some of the economic problems of developing future antibiotics when our current ones have ceased to function as the result of increased resistance over time. This additional problem is an even bigger worry for the longer term. In some sense, it’s all akin to the cost of smoking and second hand smoke–the present day marginal cost to the smoker of cigarettes and taxes is idiotically low in comparison to the massive future cost of their overall health as well as that of the society surrounding them. Better to put that cost upfront for those who really prefer to smoke so that the actual externalities are taken into account from the start.
This excellent story reminds me of a great series of stories that PBS NewsHour did on the general topic earlier this year.
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