Antibiotic resistance threatens public health
provided by KeepAntibioticsWorking.com
hroughout America, infectious diseases are emerging that we may not be able to cure because bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics.
For the past sixty years, the use of antibiotic drugs has turned bacterial infections into treatable conditions, rather than the life-threatening scourges they once were. Physicians depend on antibiotics such as penicillin, tetracycline, and erythromycin to treat many illnesses caused by bacteria, from ear and skin infections to pneumonia, food poisoning, meningitis, and other life-threatening infections. Antibiotics are crucial in treating infections that may result from medical procedures such as surgery, chemotherapy and transplants.
Today, however, doctors report increasing numbers of bacterial infections that fail to respond to antibiotic treatment. A federal government task force recently noted that antibiotic resistance is a growing menace to all people, cautioning that continued spread of resistance means that treatments for common infections will become increasingly limited and expensive and, in some cases, nonexistent.
The overuse of antibiotics
Although even the most careful use of antibiotics can result in the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, widespread and inappropriate use of these precious drugs greatly accelerates the process. The more often bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, the more likely that resistance will develop. Because bacteria reproduce rapidly, sometimes in as little as 20 minutes, it does not take long for antibiotic-resistant bacteria to spread.
A major source of antibiotic overuse is livestock producers unnecessarily feeding antibiotics to healthy farm animals to promote growth and compensate for unsanitary conditions found in industrial animal agriculture. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of all antibiotics in the United States are used in healthy pigs, poultry, and beef cattle.
Those antibiotics routinely given to healthy livestock and poultry include many that are identical, or nearly so, to drugs used in treating humans. Antibiotics have long been fed to animals because they allow the animals to grow slightly faster on the same amount of feed, thereby increasing profits for meat producers. The exact mechanism by which antibiotics promote growth is not known.
Human medical practices also contribute to the overuse of antibiotics. Often, antibiotics are prescribed for patients with illnesses like the flu or the common cold that can't be treated or cured with antibiotics. In 1995, the US Office of Technology Assessment estimated that up to half of all antibiotics prescribed by doctors were prescribed inappropriately. And in hospitals, antibiotic overuse has been a major factor in causing drug-resistant infections to skyrocket. Patients also contribute to the problem, by requesting antibiotics when they're not needed and by not completing the entire course of antibiotics when prescribed, which kills off the susceptible bacteria and leaves the more resistant bacteria to reproduce.
We're all at risk.
The spread of this new generation of infections resistant to antibiotic treatments has serious consequences for public health. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria may keep people sicker longer, and sometimes people are unable to recover at all. Children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems (including cancer, HIV/AIDS, and transplant patients) are particularly vulnerable because their immune systems are not as vigorous as those of healthy adults.
Antibiotic resistance on the rise
Because of the growing health crisis of antibiotic resistance, the American Medical Association now opposes the use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals. In addition, the American College of Preventive Medicine, the American Public Health Association, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, and the World Health Organization have taken similar positions.
Drug-resistant bacteria transmission to humans
People can become infected by eating undercooked contaminated meat, or by eating other foods or using utensils that have come in contact with meat juices. In addition, farmers, farm families, and slaughterhouse workers are routinely exposed to antibiotics or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or both. Finally, significant quantities of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria enter the environment through the nearly two trillion pounds of animal wastes produced annually in the United States by animal agriculture operations. Farm waste runoff can enter rivers, lakes, and ground water, and these wastes are sometimes spread on agricultural fields as fertilizer as well.
What should be done?
A recent study from Denmark, where the use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals was banned, demonstrates that ending this practice dramatically reduces the levels of resistant bacteria present in those animals. To keep antibiotics working for people who need them, we must stop the overuse of antibiotics in healthy pigs, poultry, and cattle, especially antibiotics that are also used in human medicine. Four steps must be taken:
Keep Antibiotics Working: The Campaign to End Antibiotics Overuse, is a coalition of health, consumer, agricultural, environmental, humane and other advocacy groups with more than nine million members dedicated to eliminating a major cause of antibiotic resistance: the inappropriate use of antibiotics in food animals. www.keepantibioticsworking.com.