Antibiotics losing effectiveness
The overuse of antibiotics in livestock may be making the drugs less effective against bacteria.
A public health crisis – that's what the Infectious Diseases Society of America is calling the losing battle against deadly bacteria. The bugs are increasingly resistant to our best drugs. Antibiotics are losing their punch, largely from over use. In fact, these days hospital-acquired infections kill more people each year than HIV/AIDS. And we're running out of choices; the last time the FDA approved a new antibiotic was back in 2003.
The vast majority of antibiotics aren't used on people - they're fed to farm animals to make them grow faster – or keep them healthy under stressful conditions. Last year farm animals in North Carolina alone consumed more antibiotics than were prescribed for all the people in the United States.
Representative Louise Slaughter says that's got to stop. The New York Democrat has introduced a bill in Congress to limit the use of antibiotics on the farm. It's called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. "Living on Earth's" Bruce Gellerman speaks with Congresswoman Slaughter about the bill.
Slaughter: "We need this act because seventy percent of all the antibiotics produced in the United States go for animal feed and making bacteria resistant. So when human beings need it, they're not really very effective. We're finding that people who go to the hospital, seventy percent* of them will get some kind of a bacterial infection that is resistant and the estimate is that the hospital costs and the health care costs are between four and five billion dollars annually."
(*LOE FACT CHECK: According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) at the Department of Health & Human Services, five percent of people who check in to a hospital in a year contract a bacterial infections; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states "more than 70 percent of the bacteria that cause hospital-associated infections are resistant to at least one of the drugs most commonly used to treat them.")
According to Slaughter, antibiotics are given to healthy animals, "... not to treat illness because we certainly want that done, but healthy animals as a preventative measure and to cover up some pretty awful conditions, living conditions and unsanitary conditions."
Certain microbes are getting stronger and more resistant to antibiotics Slaughter says, "...the best example of that is Staphylococcus aureus which causes MRSA now. But when I was a microbiology student in Kentucky, Staphylococcus aureus was as common as dirt, literally and was not anything anybody worried about because of the antibiotic being able to take it out almost immediately. But about ten, twelve years ago, we noticed that a thing called staph infection, which happened often to people who'd undergone surgery. And a lot of hospitals had to tear down their enter surgical wing and rebuild it because of the staph infection within the walls and within that unit. That should have scared us half to death. But it didn't. And now we're to the point where there's MRSA, which is the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus which killed 18,000 people last year."
Slaughter's bill calls for limiting the use of antibiotics in animals: "My bill would require the manufacturer of the antibiotic to say that if they were using it on animals, it would not create resistance that would hurt treating of human beings, and, basically, what it says is you have to only use this to treat sick animals."
As for how her bill is going over with the farm industry: "Well, let me tell you that this is the fourth term that this bill has been introduced, not been able to pass it. We have high hopes for it this year. But I should tell you also that in 1980, a bill was introduced that would have prevented this. Had we passed it then in 1980, look how far ahead we would have been."
Europe and South Korea have regulations in place, and California is considering a bill. Slaughter has hope: "A new president. New agencies. The FDA always to me was the gold standard of health as a microbiologist and a masters in public health, but no longer. And it's not the fault of the scientists there, 'cause I've had scientists look right at me and tell me that they can't talk about what's really true."
Many chicken companies in the United States have started giving up voluntarily the use of antibiotics: "Yes, I think a lot of people have – mostly because people have, as I said a while ago – this is an entirely new population of thought than we had even four years ago of people who are much more aware. Because of the deaths and the peanut butter scare and the other things – meat recalls – and all the things that they've seen, I think they understand that their food supply's not safe. And that's one of the least things that they could have always been able to expect from us. And it is our job here to make sure that they are safe. So I think this bill will pass much easier and quicker now. Senator Kennedy will be carrying it in the Senate. We never predict the Senate's actions, but I believe it will pass the House handily."
Hosted by Steve Curwood, "Living on Earth" is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More "Living on Earth."