Urinary tract infections affect one out of nine women each year in the United States, says journalist Maryn McKenna. Though usually easy to treat with a regimen of antibiotics, McKenna, writing in The Atlantic, describes how the bacteria E. coli, the most common cause of urinary tract infections, has somehow been growing increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
he origin of these newly resistant E. coli has been a mystery — except to a small group of researchers in several countries. They contend there is persuasive evidence that the bacteria are coming from poultry. More precisely, coming from poultry raised with the routine use of antibiotics, which takes in most of the 8.6 billion chickens raised for meat in the U.S. each year.
Urinary tract infections, if left untreated—or as the case may be, if treatment fails—can lead to life-threatening kidney problems or develop into a blood-borne disease.
The proposed link between resistant bacteria in chickens and those causing UTIs is not the first time researchers have traced connections between agricultural antibiotic use and human illness. But because the UTI epidemic is so large and costly, the assertion that it might be tied to chicken production has brought renewed attention to the issue.
E. coli is an extremely common bacteria, and in many cases is actually beneficial to your health. The organism’s effects depend on which strain of the bacterium you encounter, McKenna writes:
Their research… has found close genetic matches between resistant E. coli collected from human patients and resistant strains found on chicken or turkey sold in supermarkets or collected from birds being slaughtered. The researchers contend that poultry — especially chicken, the low-cost, low-fat protein that Americans eat more than any other meat — is the bridge that allows resistant bacteria to move to humans, taking up residence in the body and sparking infections when conditions are right.
McKenna notes that not all scientists agree with the proposed link between large-scale poultry farming and the uptick in antibiotic resistant E. coli. But, she likens to ongoing climb in resistant urinary tract infections to, “a diffuse, slow-moving epidemic that even the victims may not know they are part of.”
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