Film screening critiques consequences of antibiotics

November 14, 2014

Today, we know antibiotics as an easy cure for treatable illnesses, yet there is a downside to their widespread use. Filmmaker Michael Graziano came to Brandeis for a screening of his documentary “Resistance” on Thursday evening, Nov. 13. He was accompanied by Maryn McKenna, author of the book “Superbug,” and Dr. Tom O’Brien, researcher and vice president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics.

“Resistance” deals with the increase in superbugs (drug-resistant bacteria) in recent years. This is a public health issue caused by the overprescription of antibiotics, which wipe out good bacteria that are necessary for a healthy ecosystem.

The film tells two stories: the experiences of several people who fell ill from these superbugs and died or were left with lasting effects from their illness; and the work of the doctors and public health experts who are trying to understand the new strains of bacteria that evolve faster than science can catch up with them. It claims that society has “squandered” the promise of antibiotics through overuse. This has been a problem for decades, since the overuse of penicillin led to new strains of diseases.

The event was held in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and was cosponsored by many groups: the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, which does research on this issue; the Heller program in Sustainable International Development; the Research Group on Global Development and Sustainability; the undergraduate biology, environmental studies, and Health: Science, Society, and Policy (HSSP) departments; and Brandeis Students for Environmental Action (SEA). Approximately 40 students and faculty were in attendance.

The film criticizes the use of antibiotics in farming as one cause of the superbug problem. Some farmers use these drugs as a way to make livestock grow faster. This led to the rise of a salmonella strain found in ground turkey that proved to be resistant to all antibiotics that exist today.

Easy solutions to this problem are still elusive: McKenna told the audience that “new drugs are far from ready for clinical trials and approval, so until then, we’re still stuck in the cycle of competing with microbes.”

“We should purchase antibiotic-free meat…and we should be eating meat that is raised as sustainably and healthily as possible,” Graziano said, when one student asked how individuals can make a difference. He also cautioned that the “organic” label “is not as strict as we think,” and even organic-certified meat may not necessarily be immune to the effects of antibiotics.

“Unlike other crises like climate change, resistance is one of these things where our behavior really can make an impact,” Graziano said. “We need to be smarter about the way we use antibiotics and the way we exist in the microbial world.”

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