Use of antibiotics in animal agriculture facing a pivotal moment
Sept. 24, 2013
The use of antibiotics to prevent disease in poultry and promote the growth of livestock has been a contentious issue for many years, and a new report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will only further inflame debate about the topic. For the first time the C.D.C. has developed a “snapshot” of what antibiotic resistance costs annually in lives and economic impact, and it highlights how both the medical profession and animal agriculture are culpable in the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
More than two million people in the United States develop infections resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die as a result on an annual basis, according to the C.D.C. In addition to the toll on human life, the agency estimates antibiotic-resistant infections add considerable and avoidable costs to the U.S. health care system. It is estimated that, in the United States, antibiotic resistance adds $20 billion in excess direct health care costs, with additional costs to society for lost productivity as high as $35 billion per year.
The C.D.C. painted a dramatic picture of the scope of loss consumers may experience with the loss of effective antibiotic treatments. Many medical advances — joint replacements, organ transplants, cancer therapy, rheumatoid arthritis therapy — are dependent on the ability to fight infections with antibiotics. If the ability to effectively treat those infections is lost, the ability to safely offer people many of the life-saving and life-improving modern medical advances will be lost with it.
The use of antibiotics for humans and animals is the single most important factor leading to antibiotic resistance, the C.D.C. said. Bacteria will inevitably find ways of resisting the antibiotics researchers develop, which is why aggressive action is needed now to keep new resistance from developing and to prevent the resistance that already exists from spreading.
The C.D.C. report said up to 50 per cent of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed or are not prescribed appropriately. The agency is calling on the health care community to reevaluate and improve the judicious use of antibiotics.
Antibiotics are also commonly used in food-producing animals to prevent, control, and treat disease, and to promote growth. As in humans, the C.D.C. said it is important to prescribe antibiotics responsibly for animals. Toward that end, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed guidance describing a pathway for using the drugs only when medically necessary and targeting their use to only address diseases and health problems.
At a time when there is mounting concern about how food is produced and what ingredients and technologies are being used to develop and manufacture raw materials and food products, this is an instance when the need for dramatic action is supported by credible science. In the past, the medical profession has called on the animal agriculture industry to reduce or eliminate its use of antibiotics. The livestock industry has claimed the low doses of antibiotics it uses are not as significant of a contributor to antibiotic resistance as the health care industry’s over-prescription of antibiotics.
It is understandable why both the health care and livestock sectors would look to lessen the economic impact that comes with such change, but both are responsible for the development and spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria and both industries must take dramatic steps to change. The impact of antibiotic resistant bacteria is not hypothetical — it is real and it is paramount that all parties involved respond with the rapidity all emerging public health threats deserve.