Guest Column: The threat of antibiotic resistance

By Dev Gowda
Advocate, Illinois Public Interest Research Group
Jeanine Thomas
President and Founder, MRSA Survivors Network
and Jessica Fujan
Organizer, Food and Water Watch Illinois

The story of medicine is one of hope and progress. Today, diseases and illnesses are better understood and treated than at any point in human history.

This is why it’s so disturbing that medicine, in one critical way, is getting closer to taking a giant step backward. Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, and the manner in which livestock and poultry are raised on many large factory farms is part of the problem.

In its recent report on antimicrobial resistance, the World Health Organization (WHO) said: “A post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy — is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century.”

The WHO report is the latest in a string of increasingly dire warnings from the medical community. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said: “If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era, and for some patients and some microbes, we are already there.”

The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association and others agree.

What does such a post-antibiotic future look like? Already there are 23,000 deaths each year from antibiotic-resistant infections, according to the CDC. And public health experts are in agreement: If we don’t act, the problem will only get worse.

Meningitis and bacterial pneumonia may once again become untreatable. Simple infections from cuts and scrapes may lead to amputations or death. The risks from chemotherapy and radiation therapy, important cancer therapies, may prove too great because both weaken the immune system and make patients susceptible to infections. The CDC cites tuberculosis and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) as examples of bacterial illnesses associated with antimicrobial resistance.

It was in 1928 that Alexander Fleming stumbled upon the curative effects of penicillin. It didn’t take long for the medical community to understand that resistance naturally follows the introduction of an antibiotic. It’s for this reason that doctors are naturally judicious about prescribing an antibiotic.

However, such cautiousness does not always exist on animal farms. More than 70 percent of antibiotics in classes used in human medicine are sold for use in food animals. This is typically done to increase animal weight gain or to prevent disease caused by unsanitary, crowded conditions.

This exposure to antibiotics on a massive scale accelerates the development of drug-resistant bacteria. The more that bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the faster this can happen. And once resistance develops, the problem can spread rapidly, as bacteria reproduce in minutes and swap resistant genes with each other.

Even more alarming, these resistant bacteria can make their way to humans through contaminated food and water, and dust blowing off farms.

To prevent the WHO’s fear of a post-antibiotic future from becoming a reality, we need to stop the spread of superbugs — and that means ending the misuse of antibiotics.

According to the 2009 American Academy of Pediatrics Technical Report, ending human misuse of antibiotics will be insufficient to curb the accelerating trend in antibiotic resistance. It is widely accepted that feeding antibiotics to livestock has a direct negative impact on human health and the environment. The time to act is now.

If we want a future in which antibiotics remain a central pillar of health care, we need all animal farms to take similar action immediately. Congress and the Barack Obama administration can make this happen by requiring that livestock and poultry operations stop using antibiotics on animals that aren’t sick. This immediate action is critical to ensure that these precious medicines are preserved for generations to come.

From the Sept. 17-23, 2014, issue

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