Antibiotics—Pillars of Public Health
Ever since antibiotics were first used in the 1940s, these life-saving drugs have transformed human medicine in the United States and around the world.
Antibiotics kill the bacteria that threaten people and are used to fight bacterial infections, from pneumonia to strep to staph infections. The widespread use of antibiotics in the 20th century helped reduce death rates, manage common illnesses and extend human life expectancy.
The Emergence of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria
Whenever antibiotics are used, some bacteria may adapt and become resistant to these commonly used drugs. Patients infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria may not respond to treatment with these medicines. Today, the world's leading public health and medical organizations are concerned that overuse and misuse of antibiotics are causing bacteria to develop resistance more quickly. That is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified antibiotic resistance as one of its top concerns.
Impacts on Public Health
The public health implications of antibiotic-resistant bacteria go far beyond the immediate threat of an individual infection. When infections linger, the risk of developing more severe illnesses, or transmitting the infection to others, is greatly increased. According to the CDC, “antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates, and co-workers—threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.”
The Causes of Antibiotic Resistance
Improper use of antibiotics has been identified as a primary factor in the increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antibiotics are misused by consumers when prescriptions are not fully followed (thus failing to kill bacteria). In other cases, people with viral infections such as the cold and the flu incorrectly believe that an antibiotic will help. In fact, antibiotics do not work against viral infections.
Antibiotics also are overused when they are routinely given to healthy food animals.
The Link to Food Animal Production
Many of the antibiotics used in food animal production—including penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, sulfonamides and other antibiotic classes—are identical to, or in the same family as, drugs used in human medicine to cure serious diseases. According to the CDC, these similarities mean that bacteria resistant to antibiotics in animals also will be resistant to antibiotics used in humans.
Working together, citizens and government, the agricultural industry and public interest organizations have the tools to reduce overuse and misuse of antibiotics:
• Individuals can practice safe and effective use of antibiotics by only taking the drugs when and as prescribed by a doctor.
• The food animal industry can adopt cost-effective alternative hygienic strategies for preventing illness in animals and discontinue the use of antibiotics in feed for growth promotion and feed efficiency.
Policymakers must do their part as well. Legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives would help address this issue. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act would withdraw the routine, non-therapeutic use of seven classes of antibiotics vitally important to human health from food animal production unless animals or herds are sick with diagnosed. Federal legislation such as this and/or regulation is needed in order to preserve the effectiveness of these life-saving drugs and to protect human health.
The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming is working to save antibiotics by phasing out the routine use of the drugs in food animal production. We work with public health leaders, veterinarians, agricultural interests, academics and citizens' groups who share our objective of preserving the integrity of antibiotics as a means of protecting human and animal health.