Are antibiotics in animal feed creating ‘superbugs?’
The story of medicine is one of progress and hope. Today, diseases and illnesses are better understood, managed and treated than at any point in human history.
This is why it’s so disturbing that medicine, in one critical way, is getting ever 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 just 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. Surgeries from hip replacements to heart surgery may be put off or avoided for fear of infections. The list goes on.
It was in 1928 that Alexander Fleming stumbled upon the curative effects of penicillin. It didn’t take long for researchers and 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 large livestock and poultry operations. When factory farms discovered that their animals would grow fatter, faster, when receiving antibiotics, many began putting antibiotics right into the feed of healthy animals, daily. Additionally, antibiotics are used to prevent future illness. Why wait for the animals to get sick when we can keep them on antibiotics their entire lives? Or so the theory goes.
The result of this near-constant exposure to antibiotics? Bacteria are quickly mutating to form resistance. The more that bacteria are exposed to a drug, the faster this happens. And once resistance develops, the problem spreads, rapidly, as bacteria reproduce in minutes and swap resistant genes with each other.
To prevent the World Health Organization’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 and overuse of antibiotics.
Certainly we can use the power of the purse, choosing antibiotic free meat, for example. But we need more.
If we want a future in which antibiotics remain a pillar of medicine, an effective tool to treat ear infections, pneumonia and much more, then we need the Obama Administration, specifically the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to prohibit livestock and poultry operations from using antibiotics on healthy animals. Anything less is too little.
Irene Cadwell is program director for the N.C. Public Interest Research Group in Raleigh.
Gayatri Ankem is a public health professional in Charlotte.