Factory farms sow superbugs

October 7, 2014

Chicago Sun-Times Op-Ed

Imagine a world where a scraped knee on a playground could have deadly complications. A world where chemotherapy and radiation are less effective cancer treatments because of increasingly common post-treatment infections, or where lifesaving drugs we regularly rely on today no longer heal people.

Unfortunately, those hypothetical dangers are quickly becoming real: the rise of antibiotic-resistant bugs threaten to render extremely vital drugs all but useless, often with deadly results. Yet, if we act together we can find a solution to this real and present threat.

In its recent report on antimicrobial resistance, the World Health Organization (WHO) said: “A post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy — is instead a very real possibility for the 21st Century.”

The WHO report is just the latest in a string of increasingly dire warnings from the medical community. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said: “If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era, and for some patients and some microbes, we are already there.”

Already, two million Americans fall ill every year from antibiotic-resistant infections, and according to the CDC, 23,000 of them die from those infections annually. Public health experts are in agreement: if we don’t act, the problem will only worsen.

Experts warn that treatable diseases like pneumonia, meningitis, and tuberculosis may once again become untreatable. Organ transplants, chemotherapy, hip replacements, radiation therapy and other staples of modern medicine may become overly risky without effective antibiotics to treat infections.

There are several causes leading to the development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and a major contributor is the use of low doses of antibiotics in factory farms. More than 70 percent of antibiotics in classes used in human medicine are sold for use in food for animals. These drugs are placed in the food and water of livestock to accelerate growth and help compensate for often horrific, unsanitary living conditions.

Unfortunately, this widespread use of antibiotics is very dangerous. While bacteria are very susceptible to antibiotic treatments, they are also very quick to evolve and attempt to survive the threat. In factory farm settings, low doses of antibiotics provide significant opportunities for this evolution to happen, as more bacteria are given the opportunity to survive and strengthen their resistance. Once this occurs, the problem spreads rapidly, as bacteria reproduce in minutes and swap resistant genes with each other.

To prevent the World Health Organization’s fear of a post-antibiotic future from becoming a reality, we need to stop the spread of superbugs — and that means ending the misuse and overuse of antibiotics.

Since 1972, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recognized that the use of antibiotics in livestock poses health risks for people, but the Agency has yet to make more than a symbolic effort to address the issue.

That is why Illinois Public Interest Research Group is organizing a grassroots campaign to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics. Illinois PIRG has signed on more than 400 Illinois medical and health professionals to a letter to President Obama to urge action. In total, the campaign has signed on more than 6000 health professionals nationwide.

President Obama’s recent executive order on antibiotics makes progress on a host of contributors to antibiotics overuse, but does not aggressively tackle the problem of antibiotics overuse in agriculture.

So we’re calling for the passage of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in Congress, and for President Obama to direct the FDA to prohibit livestock and poultry operations from using antibiotics on healthy animals. We must not let Illinois, or the rest of the country, to enter an era where antibiotics are useless or even worse, pose a lethal threat to human life.

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