A healthy resistance to antibiotics
The overuse of the medications in
humans and animals is believed to be responsible for the rise of dangerous
superbugs. Now the time may be right for some limits in agribusiness.
(Los Angeles Times, CA – Opinion)
A year and a half ago, researchers found that a deadly form of staph
infection was prevalent on Canadian pig farms. This year, the superbug was
found in both swine and workers at U.S. farms.
The rise of bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or
MRSA, which kills more people in this country each year than AIDS, is
believed to be a consequence of the overuse of antibiotics in humans and
animals. Low doses of the medications have become ubiquitous in the livestock
industry, mixed into feed to enhance growth and prevent the diseases that
sweep through crowded pens.
A panel of experts found "clear evidence of adverse human health
consequences due to resistant organisms resulting from nonhuman usage of
antimicrobials," the World Health Organization reported in 2004.
"These consequences include infections that would not have otherwise
occurred, increased frequency of treatment failures (in some cases death) and
increased severity of infections."
The European Union has already banned non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in
farm animals, but each year lobbying by agribusiness in this country dooms
legislation that would do the same. On Tuesday, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter
(D-N.Y.) introduced a bill that would restrict the use of antibiotics that
are important to human health in farming operations. The medications could be
used to treat illness, but not as a growth promoter or as a substitute for
cleaner living conditions. The bill might have a better chance of passing
now, with a stronger Democratic majority in Congress.
The timing is right in other ways as well. In January, the Department of
Agriculture -- responsible for promoting the meat industry as well as
consumer health -- reported that, except during the nursery stage for young
pigs, the costs of using preventive or growth-promoting antibiotics slightly
outweighed the economic benefits for farms. That's not counting the added
costs to consumers in prescription prices for more exotic antibiotics or the
$4 billion a year this country spends to combat resistant infections. Some
farms are successfully using better sanitation and tracking of illnesses
among their herds instead of preventive antibiotics.
It would be a mistake to delay restrictions on antibiotic use until the
situation has a chance to reach dire proportions; there is no guarantee that
specialized antibiotics could be developed in time to thwart a new wave of
drug-resistant bacteria. Humans don't need antibiotics to treat common colds,
which are caused by viruses rather than bacteria, and animals don't need them
to grow. 3-19-09