By The Des Moines Register
A soldier shot in World War I may not have been killed by the initial wound. Yet there was a good chance a subsequent infection would take his life. By World War II, that soldier had a better chance of survival due to the wide availability of antibiotics. These miracles of modern medicine fight infections and save lives.
But the vast majority of antibiotics developed to treat people are given to the animals people eat. Farmers add low doses to feed and water to prevent disease in crowded livestock facilities. The drugs also promote growth. A bigger cow, pig, turkey or chicken translates into more money for producers.
How does this widespread use in animals affect humans? It is killing us, a growing number of scientists say.
Bacteria are adaptable little guys. Over time, they develop a resistance to commonly used antibiotics. Those more resilient bacteria then move from animals to humans. The bacteria causing everything from urinary tract infections to pneumonia in humans are more difficult to treat with common antibiotics.
Tens of thousands of Americans are killed each year by drug-resistant infections. It costs the country’s health care system billions of dollars.
So what should be done? Obviously, there is a desperate need to develop new antibiotics. People have heard by now they should avoid overusing and misusing these drugs, which can contribute to resistance. But the extensive use of antibiotics in agriculture — and its culpability in a human health crisis — cannot be ignored. Science isn’t ignoring it. Neither can Washington lawmakers.
A few years ago, Congress considered following the recommendations of scores of scientists to phase out the use of antibiotics in animal farming, except specifically to treat disease. Though researchers, including those at Iowa State University, estimated the cost to the livestock industry and consumers would be small, the agriculture industry opposed the legislation — and won. The Food and Drug Administration is trying to rein in the routine use of drugs in animals, but it is unclear whether producers are responding.
At the very least, Congress should require more reporting on what drugs are being used on what animals so scientists can better track the impact on human health. “We need to know what’s going on,” said Dr. Lance Price during a recent meeting with the Register’s editorial board. He and his colleagues have traced new strains of antibiotic-resistant pathogens to industrial livestock operations.
Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, can ensure such data is gathered by requiring it in the Animal Drug User Fee Act, which the committee is discussing now. Longer term, American producers, who lead the world in aggressive use of antibiotics, should move toward reducing and eliminating the use of the drugs, except to directly treat disease.
It has been more than a decade since producers in Denmark stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion in animals. The small increase in feed costs was ameliorated by the decrease in spending on antibiotics. Pork production rose. It’s certainly no coincidence that Denmark has fewer problems with antibiotic-resistant infections in hospitals than the United States does.
It’s time for this country to care as much about protecting human health as growing big cows or chickens.