Climate change associated with antibiotic resistance


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E. coli bacteria is a common cause of urinary tract infections and has shown resistance to antibiotics. (National Institute of Health/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 25, 2018

The human health impacts of climate change are myriad and include heat-related illnesses and vector borne diseases like Lyme disease. However, a new public health consequence of global warming has recently come to light: antibiotic resistance.

Earlier this week, a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change reported finding that higher local temperatures and population densities are associated with increased antibiotic resistance of common pathogens. Researchers looked at 1.6 million bacterial specimens which showed resistance to antibiotics from 2013 through 2015 in various geographic locations in the U.S. These specimens included three common and deadly pathogens: Escherichia coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Staphylococcus aureus. 

They found that a temperature rise of 10 degrees Celsius increased the bacterias’ resistance to antibiotics by four percent (E. coli), two percent (K. pneumoniae), and three percent (S. aureus). John Brownstein is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the study’s authors. He said to the Scientific American, “Places in the South [of the U.S.] tend to show more resistance than places in the North, and a good chunk of that variability can be explained by temperature.”

Researchers also explored how population density may be related to antibiotic resistance. They found that for every increase of 10,000 people per square mile, antibiotic resistance in that area increased by three to six percent. Prior to this study, most research about antibiotic resistance pointed to the overprescription of antibiotic medication as the primary reason for antibiotic resistance, but now, climate change and population density are known play a part.

The study concludes, “Our findings suggest that, in the presence of climate change and population growth, already dire predictions of the impact of antibiotic resistance on global health may be significant underestimates.”

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