Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Increasing, Says Frontline Correspondent

July 23, 2015

David E. Hoffman

Carole F. Hoffman

Bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

David Hoffman has looked into this phenomenon and questions of food safety in three documentaries for Frontline. Because of the PBS connection, we took the opportunity to talk with him about those Frontline documentaries, when we discussed his new book – The Billion Dollar Spy - earlier in the month

Antibiotic Resistance 

The first two films, Hunting The Nightmare Bacteria and The Trouble With Antibiotics, cover the problem of antibiotic resistance. “Antibiotics, these medical drugs of the 1940s and 50s are becoming less and less effective.” said Hoffman. “The bacteria are adapting ... and there are some really serious illnesses that can result in which there is no way to treat the patient.” 

Hoffman says his films look at some of the problems in human health and agriculture around the use and abuse of antibiotics. "The reason this resistance is rising is largely from failures in the way we're used the drugs," said Hoffman. He says that the overuse is a combination of unnecessary prescriptions and the massive amounts of antibiotics used in agriculture. 

One of the big things that we can do to hinder the spread and development of these bacteria is to use bacteria sparingly. "In other words not taking antibiotics for every cold when you actually have a virus and the antibiotics won't help you at all,” said Hoffman. “Be careful when you take them and what you ask your doctor for and insist that your doctor also be careful.”

"And another part of dealing with this problem is developing new antibiotics. And, as we showed in the first film, there's a real slowdown in this research and development for new antibiotics,” said Hoffman. “It’s very difficult research. It doesn’t often have the return on investment that some blockbuster drugs might have.

More important than all of that? "Hand washing is your first line of defense. Every single individual should be cautioned about the importance of hand washing. It can cut way down on the chances that you’ll get an infection,” said Hoffman.

The Center for Disease Control has more information on how to cut down your risk, and the risk of those around you, here.  

Food Safety and Salmonella 

The third film, The Trouble With Chicken, looks at the spread of diseases through meat, particularly poultry. It focuses on an outbreak of Salmonella in California that went on for months and infected over 600 people. 

The problem in food safety, he says, is not a lack of information. "We know how to deliver food safely and we have one of the best food safety systems in the world, but it's a puzzle with such protections, with such a good sense of the science and with systems to monitor outbreaks, how this particular outbreak went on for so long," said Hoffman. 

One of the problems that led to this problem, he says, is that the government did not require the producer of the chicken to recall it. "So the chicken kept being sold for weeks and weeks and people got sick," says Hoffman. 

Avoiding Salmonella, Hoffman says, requires being very careful in the kitchen before the chicken is cooked. He says Salmonella often will spread when people splatter water washing the chicken (he suggests not washing chicken), or by contaminating knives, cutting boards, or other kitchen implements. He adds that being sure the meat is well cooked is also very important. 

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