The Threat of Superbugs

The Threat of Superbugs

The Threat of Superbugs


Yesterday a new study reported a direct link in animal-to-human transmission of MRSA.  It found the samples of bacteria from the human patients and their farm animals to be genetically identical.

“The extreme overuse of antibiotics in livestock is endangering human health.” states Congresswoman Louise Slaughter. “This [new] study ends any debate.”  Congresswoman Slaughter is a microbiologist and sponsor of the recent HR 1150 (PAMTA) Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. 

The overuse of antibiotics in food animal production represents 80% of antibiotics used in the US”. These antibiotics are used sub-therapeutically as growth promotants and in healthy animals to prevent disease.

The result has been a rise in antibiotic-resistant diseases.  More Americans are killed from antibiotic resistant disease than from HIV/AIDS.  We are growing a population of superbugs that our antibiotics cannot stop.

This abuse has us on the brink of a catastrophic public health crisis.  The FDA has been aware of this threat for some time and yet has failed to act with any effective measures to control this abuse of these drugs.

PAMTA would preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics important to human medicine by phasing out the use of these drugs in food animal production.  Yet, it would still allow these drugs to be used for treatment of sick animals of which I am in favor.

This new study published in EMBO Molecular Medicine confirms the transmission of antibiotic resistant disease in farm animals that have been fed a diet of sub-therapeutic antibiotics to humans.

Has it only been a generation since antibiotics represented the world’s first miracle drugs?  Prior to their discovery death could occur in what would seem in modern times trivial injuries and diseases.

What have we allowed to happen to this powerful gift of healing?   Are we at risk of returning to the days before the discovery of antibiotics?  Where a simple surgery or hospital stay itself could be life threatening.

Today antibiotic-resistant bacteria have become a growing public health crisis that puts our health, our finances and even our lives at risk.  MRSA, along with resistant strains of salmonella, campylobacter, E.coli, and influenza A have heightened our awareness of the risk we have incurred in such a short time.

The overuse and irresponsible use of antibiotics as feed additives in food animal production has played a large role in the problem with antibiotic resistance.  The use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) is not to treat disease but is given to healthy animals to promote growth and compensate for crowded, stressful, unsanitary conditions in which these animals are raised.

I recall the warnings of one of my professors in veterinary school that we, as veterinarians, were being given a sacred trust and responsibility in the use of these drugs and they should be used wisely.  Reaching retirement age, this professor told us how as a young man coming home from WWII he had contracted a lung disease caused by a bacterium similar to tuberculosis.

They gave him little hope of survival but offered to try an experimental drug, an antibiotic.  Doomed to life in a sanitarium and early death, he gratefully chose to take part in the experiment.

He fully recovered due to the new miracle drug.  His story and strong warning has always made me in my professional capacity consider the judicial use of antibiotics.

Even then, in the beginning of my career, we understood that the overuse of antibiotics was already creating “superbugs” resistant to medication.  It has been estimated that at least 18,000 Americans die every year from drug-resistant infections.  This does not take into account the increase in health care cost and human suffering associated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Antibiotics probably single handedly propelled my veterinary profession and that of human physicians into the respected world of science by the dramatic effects of their administration in diseased animals and humans.  Their judicious and therapeutic use is still important for the health and recovery from many diseases.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, as much as 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are fed to healthy farm animals.  In 2011, 29.9 million lbs. of antibiotics were sold in the US for meat and poultry production.

In contrast during the same period only 7.7 million lbs. of antibiotics were sold to treat sick people in the US.  The intent is to prevent disease under an aberrant environment as well as promote maximum weight gains.

When drug-resistant bacteria develop at industrial livestock facilities they can then reach the human population through food, the environment, by direct contact with animals and spread by person to person.

The world’s leading medical, agricultural, and veterinary authorities have reached consensus that antibiotic overuse in animal agriculture is contributing to human public health problems.  Poultry, swine, cattle and sheep raised on industrial farms or CAFO’s are routinely fed low doses of antibiotics through their water or food troughs to promote growth and expedite weight gain as well as to compensate for the unsanitary conditions in which they are raised.

Many of the antibiotics used on animals are the same ones used to fight infections among humans, including tetracycline, macrolides, bacitracin, penicillin, and sulfonamides. Bacteria in animals (as in humans) are able to develop antibiotic resistance when exposed to low doses of drugs over a long period of time, contributing to the rise of pathogens that are able to defeat our shared antibiotic arsenal.

What can each of us do?

1. Support farms and farmers who raise our food without the abuse of antibiotics by choosing to purchase their products.

2. Demand of your retail store that they carry ABF products.

3. Get involved with some of the “Save Antibiotics” initiatives.

4. Tell your legislature how you feel about the issue and ask them to support PAMTA.

5. Tell your friends, family and co-workers of the threat to public health.

6. Make sure you and your family only take antibiotics as prescribed (right dose and right duration).



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