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What We Can Learn from Germany's Scary E. Coli Outbreak

The strain of Escherischia coli wreaking havoc in Germany is resistant to 14 kinds of antibiotics. That should be a lesson for the FDA.

Escherischia coli is amazing. Like us, the bacteria have sex and get old. They send out assassins. They form biofilms that resemble cities. We harness them to make jet fuel and they are an integral part of our intestines. In his excellent little book, Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life, science writer Carl Zimmer explains:


We need bacteria to break down many of the carbohydrates in our food. Our microbial passengers synthesizes some of the vitamins and animo acids we need. They help control the calories that flow from our food to our bodies. A change in the bacteria in your gut may change your weight. Intestinal microbes also ward off diseases, a fact that has led some doctors to feed premature infants a protective strain of E. coli.

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But E. coli is better known as a killer and a disease affecting the developed world. Still, only six or seven known strains cause problems. Sometimes it means a bout of bloody diarrhea. Other times, the bacteria release toxins that cause kidney failure. Because these problems have disproportionately affected kids, people tend to conjure up dead children when they think of E. coli.

“We don’t have an E. coli problem,” J. Glenn Morris, an expert on emerging pathogens said at an MIT Food Boot Camp I attended earlier this year. “The problem is that E. coli is able to pick up certain genes.” Thus, the bacteria evolves in real-time and, as the recent outbreak in Germany shows, relatively new stains strike when and where we least expect them.

Because it’s possible that a single cell can cause disease, the best treatment against E. coli is preventing outbreaks in the first place. Human infections are almost always traced to ruminants—cows, sheep, deer.

So here’s the problem: We use animals all the time to produce our food even if we delude ourselves into thinking we can miraculously divorce animal from vegetable. If we all went vegan, vegetable farmers would still spread manure or human feces—both of which can transmit E. coli—as fertilizer. Even if we were to stop the use of any manure, a wild boar could wander on to a spinach field, like one did in 1996 in California, and cause an outbreak.

This is not to let the biggest problem, meat production, off the hook. One particular reason the current outbreak in Germany is worrisome, as Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Robert Tauxe explained today in The New York Times, is its apparent resistance to 14 different antibiotic drugs. Tauxe asked the rhetorical question that should be on everyone's mind: “Where has this organism been that it’s been exposed to so much antibiotics that it’s worth its while to be resistant?”

Currently, antibiotics are being fed to farm animals to promote growth. In fact, more antibiotics are now being fed to animals in North Carolina than given to the entire human population in the United States. The outbreak could be a bellwether for the deadly proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. So, if there's something we should take away from the German outbreak here at home, it is convincing the Food and Drug Administration to stop farms from squandering these drugs.

Image via "Enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli Exploits EspA Filaments for Attachment to Salad Leaves." ©2011 American Society for Microbiology.

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This article was produced in partnership with the United Nations to launch the biggest-ever global conversation on the role of cooperation in building the future we want.

When half of the world's population doesn't share the same opportunity or rights as the other half, the whole world suffers. Like a bird whose wings require equal strength to fly, humanity will never soar to its full potential until we achieve gender equality.

That's why the United Nations made one of its Sustainable Development Goals to "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls." That goal includes providing women and girls equal access to education and health care, as well as addressing gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls.

While there is still much work to be done, history shows us that we are capable of making big leaps forward on this issue. Check out some of the milestones humanity has already reached on the path to true equality.

Historic Leaps Toward Gender Equality

1848 The Seneca Falls Convention in New York, organized by Elizabeth Lady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, is the first U.S. women's convention to discuss the oppression of women in sociopolitical, economic, and religious life.

1893 New Zealand becomes the first self-governing nation to grant national voting rights to women.

1903 Marie Curie becomes the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She is also the only woman to win multiple Nobel Prizes, for Physics in 1903 and Chemistry in 1911.

1920 The 19th Amendment is passed in the U.S. giving women the right to vote in all 50 U.S. states.

1973 The U.S. Open becomes the first major sports tournament of its kind to offer equal pay to women, after tennis star Billie Jean King threatened to boycott.

1975 The first World Conference on Women is held in Mexico, where a 10-year World Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women is formed. The first International Women's Day is commemorated by the UN in the same year.

1979 The UN General Assembly adopts the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also known as the "Women's Bill of Rights." It is the most comprehensive international document protecting the rights of women, and the second most ratified UN human rights treaty after the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

1980 Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland becomes the first woman to be elected head of state in a national election.

1993 The UN General Assembly adopts the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, the first international instrument to explicitly define forms of violence against women and lay out a framework for global action.

2010 The UN General Assembly creates the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) to speed progress on meeting the needs of women and girls around the world.

2018 The UN and European Union join forces on the Spotlight Initiative, a global, multi-year initiative focused on eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.

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As the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary, it is redoubling its commitment to reach all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality. But it will take action and effort from everyone to ensure that women and girls are free from discrimination and violence. Learn more about what is being done to address gender equality and see how you can get involved here.

And join the global conversation about the role of international cooperation in building the future by taking the UN75 survey here.

Let's make sure we all have a say in the future we want to see.

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Perez claims he was responding to insults hurled at him by the officers. The police say that Perez was picking a fight. The altercation left Perez with a broken nose, scrapes, swelling, and bruises from his hips to his shoulder.

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