Opinion

Save Lives, Save Animals by Saving Antibiotics

  • March 23, 2010
  • By Shelley A. Hearne

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Antibiotics are one of the pillars of public health in the 21st century. These drugs can literally mean the difference between life and death when we contract a bacterial infection-from Staph to salmonella to bacterial pneumonia. But overuse of these drugs is making bacteria resistant to essential antibiotics. As a result, these vital drugs are becoming ineffective.

The American public is largely doing its part to prevent overuse by following the advice of our doctors. We are getting better about not taking antibiotics when we don't need them and using prescriptions as directed. Unfortunately, some industrial farms are not so prudent.

Experts estimate that up to 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States are given to healthy food animals on industrial farms to grow the animals faster and compensate for often crowded, unsanitary conditions. Of course antibiotics should be administered to food animals when they are sick. We should always administer antibiotics judiciously—to humans as well as animals—since any use diminishes the effectiveness of the drugs.

A recent two-part investigative series on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric revealed not only the widespread use of antibiotics in industrial farming, but also the threat it poses to human health.

Three decades of scientific research has demonstrated that feeding low doses of antibiotics to food animals over a long period of time promotes the development of dangerous strains of drug-resistant bacteria that can spread to humans. And contrary to claims by vested interest groups, the dissemination of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from industrial farms to the surrounding environment including air and water is well supported by numerous peer-reviewed studies.

The scientific evidence has compelled the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Public Health Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the European Union to independently conclude that routine use of antibiotics in food animal production should be curtailed in order to protect human health.

These conclusions have been recently echoed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Last year, Dr. Frederick Angulo, who serves as the CDC's lead veterinarian for environmental health issues, stated, "There is scientific consensus that antibiotic use in food animals contributes to resistance in humans." In testimony to Congress last July, FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said: "Antimicrobial use in animals has been shown to contribute to the emergence of resistant microorganisms that can infect people." Dr. Sharfstein also testified that antibiotics used on industrial farms should be phased out for growth promotion and feed efficacy, and should be more rigorously overseen for disease control and prevention.

Last month, a CBS Evening News report also documented how other countries have created a more balanced system for producing food without undermining the foundations of human health. Denmark, one of the world's largest exporters of pork, has found a way to raise swine on industrial farms without relying on the routine use of antibiotics. In 1998, the country began mandatory restrictions on antibiotic use in food animals. Since an all-time high of antibiotic use in swine production in 1992, the Danes have reduced antibiotic use in pigs by 50 percent while achieving a 47 percent increase in production. Denmark's success provides the United States with an effective model to protect public health from the overuse of antibiotics in food animal production.

Congress has before it a solution to phase out the overuse of antibiotics. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), introduced by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) would withdraw the use of seven classes of antibiotics on industrial farms unless animals are sick with disease or unless drug companies can demonstrate that their routine use does not harm human health. Some agribusinesses are resisting the prudent approach embodied in PAMTA. But the evidence makes clear that Congress should act now to pass this important legislation to protect the life-saving medicines on which our public health system depends.

Shelley A. Hearne is the managing director of the Pew Health Group.

This op-ed was published by The Huffington Post.