Threat of the superbug

Threat of the superbug
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For all of the recent fixation on Ebola, a more serious and widespread threat to our health has continued to fly under the radar: the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant superbugs that infect 2 million and kill 23,000 Americans every year — more than HIV/AIDS.

It’s Get Smart About Antibiotics Week, the annual Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) campaign to raise awareness about the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. More awareness is clearly needed. The World Health Organization recently stated that a post-antibiotics era — wherein antibiotics are no longer effective to treat infections — is “far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, [and] is instead a very real possibility for the twenty-first century.” Antibiotic resistance would cause routine infections like strep throat to once again be fatal. Routine surgeries, including dental work, which require antibiotics to stave off infection, would become life-threatening. Medical advances such as joint replacements and organ transplants may become impossible.

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This world is avoidable. Resistance is accelerated if antibiotics are used when they are not needed or in ways that are ineffective. Part of the solution lies in our hospitals. The CDC estimates that 30 percent to 50 percent of antibiotic use in hospitals is unnecessary or inappropriate. Fortunately, our medical community has begun to respond. Professional medical societies are updating treatment guidelines to eliminate prescribing antibiotics when they are not needed. Hospitals are instituting antibiotic stewardship programs and reducing the amount of antibiotics used. A recent survey showed 80 percent of doctors, practices and hospitals are working to reduce the misuse of antibiotics.

But human misuse is only a small part of the problem. Eighty percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on the farm. Instead of being used to treat sick animals, antibiotics are routinely administered at low doses via daily feed and water in order to make animals grow faster or to “prevent disease” brought on by crowded and unsanitary conditions.

This type of misuse is a recipe for antibiotic resistance and future disaster. The World Health Organization believes this long-term exposure to low levels of antibiotics in agriculture vastly overshadows medical misuse and has greater potential to cause antibiotic resistance. Reporting from the Food and Drug Administration shows an alarming percentage of meat sold in supermarkets harbors resistant bacteria.

Science is clear that antibiotic overuse on farms is contributing to the rise in bacterial resistance. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report in September, Combating Antibiotic Resistance, acknowledging that the “use of antibiotics in animal agriculture promotes the development of antibiotic-resistant microbes.”

However, instead of following the lead of the medical community and being part of the solution by implementing good stewardship of antibiotics, industrial farms and pharmaceutical companies continue to deny their practices contribute to resistance. They refuse to commit to meaningful change, have lobbied furiously against regulation, and remain shrouded behind weak reporting requirements. Instead, they tout their willingness to agree with current FDA guidelines, which are voluntary and call only for elimination of “growth promotion” uses from the labels of antibiotics used on the farm, leaving massive loopholes that allow them to continue unsafe practices.

A similar voluntary approach was tried in the Netherlands but failed to decrease antibiotic usage over a 10-year span. However, mandatory regulations in 2009 resulted in a 58 percent decrease in usage and a reduction in resistant infections on the farm. Overall total usage of antibiotics has declined in the EU without significant declines in production, indicating that change doesn’t have to hurt the industry’s bottom line.

Many of my colleagues in Congress have joined me in recognizing this crisis and helped to pass legislation aimed at creating new antibiotics. That is all well and good, but new antibiotics, which will take years and millions of dollars to develop, will also become obsolete without proper stewardship.

I am leading two bills to protect antibiotics for future use. The first is The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), which would stop the use of medically important antibiotics on the farm except for the direct treatment of sick animals. This legislation is currently supported by more than 450 organizations and 32 cities in the U.S. The second is The Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency in Animals (DATA) Act, which would strengthen reporting requirements for the agricultural industry. Congress should pass these bills immediately.

Change will take more than an act of Congress. It’s up to American consumers to get smart about how their meat is raised and demand alternatives. It’s past time to address this crisis, and for everyone, including industry, to get smart about saving antibiotics.

Slaughter has represented northern New York congressional districts since 1987. She is ranking member on the Rules Committee and the only microbiologist in Congress.