Humans are not only creating antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli, but we’re spreading them to giraffes and other members of the animal kingdom, according to a new study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
The study, which examined samples from 195 wild giraffes living in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy wildlife reserve in central Kenya, found that 5.1 percent of the giraffes were resistant to antibiotics. Of these resistant giraffes, 30 percent of them were resistant to more than one antibiotic, such as amoxicillin, oxytetracycline, and co-trimoxazole.
According to the study, we know very little about what forces encourage antibiotic resistance in wild animal populations. But in giraffes specifically, the researchers learned, some were more vulnerable than others because of whose genes they had and how old they were.
“Giraffe with lower social degree were more likely to harbor resistant E. coli, but this relationship was likely driven by a correlation between an individual’s social connectedness and age,” the study says. Baby giraffes were among the most vulnerable.
Of course, we aren’t prescribing wild giraffes antibiotics because they’re (you guessed it) wild. So the issue isn’t that antibiotics don’t work on them. The problem is that giraffes could easily spread these antibiotic resistant E. coli to agriculture, animals that humans eat, and humans directly.
In humans, an untreated E. coli infection causes painful cramping, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. When the bacteria infects agriculture, millions of dollars worth of food has to be destroyed. Despite this risk, we still haven’t figured out how to use antibiotics intelligently.
At a large scale, doctors overprescribe antibiotics, and people don’t take them for the total amount of time that our doctors tell us to. Both of these factors make it more likely for the E. coli infecting the body to mutate, adapt, and become resistant to antibiotics, rendering those antibiotics useless.
The researchers say that in the future, scientists will need to study the impact of a variety of antibiotics and conduct robust analyses of the age, social connections, and genetic makeup of creatures that carry antibiotic resistant E. coli strains. Without that kind of knowledge, E. coli outbreaks in food, water, and domestic animal supplies will continue to be a problem that catches humans off guard.