October 23, 2013

Drug-resistant infections kill thousands

A new study links human deaths to the use of antibiotics in livestock, but Congress has failed to act.

By Melinda Henneberger
The Washington Post

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A caged hen feeds at an egg farm. The broad use of antibiotics to control and prevent disease in cows, pigs and chickens is believed to play a role in the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.


The Johns Hopkins report says the definition of “oversight by a veterinarian” has been changed, too, and no longer means much.

The FDA also has a strategy, wrote Burgess, to “effectively phase out production uses of medically important antimicrobials” and “has worked closely with stakeholders, including the pharmaceutical industry, animal producers, veterinarians, consumer groups, and public health organizations to ensure the success of this strategy. However, FDA’s approach does not rule out future regulatory action to ensure the judicious use of these important drugs.”

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., a microbiologist by training, has been trying for 14 years to get Congress to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. “No way” is the Republican-controlled House going to take up her proposed legislation, she said Monday. But it didn’t pass when Democrats were in control, either.

Mary Wilson of the Harvard School of Public Health said the risk to human health is real and immediate. “We will see common infections become fatal,” just as they were before the invention of antibiotics, she said.


In this country, regulators as well as lawmakers have long given in to industry pressure, according to Slaughter. In the 1970s, the FDA announced that the two classes of antibiotics used then in both human medicine and livestock production should not be routinely fed to animals. But the agency has been backpedaling ever since, she said, “because the lobbying on this is fierce.”

Another of the report’s authors, Michael Blackwell, a former dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, was more sympathetic to the challenges facing regulators. “Most of the people I’ve known over the years at the FDA think we have a horrible situation” in industrial animal production, he said, adding, “They live in this country, too,” and want their children eating food that is safe.

Without enough real authority to force producers to do anything, Blackwell said, “what they’re doing right now is almost pleading, in their own FDA-ish way,” with industry.

The only good news, the authors agreed, is that as consumers become more aware of how food is produced, they may demand changes.

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