If news is supposed to be new, it's surprising there was any coverage at all when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced to reporters earlier this month that drug-resistant superbugs must be addressed through more prudent use of antibiotics.
"How we use and protect these precious drugs must fundamentally change," Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director for health-care-associated infection prevention programs at the CDC, says in a Reuters report. The CDC is linking up with 25 health-care organizations to raise awareness.
These groups are warning that without action, patients could soon face a time when antibiotics are powerless to treat many common infections.
Dr. David Relman, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said in the same report doctors are already seeing patients with bacterial infections resistant to "every antibiotic we have left."
"It will take all of us -- consumers, health-care providers, researchers, policymakers, industry, and others -- to tackle this problem," he said. There is no argument that doctors need to prescribe these medications more judiciously. But this coalition wants these drugs on a prescription-only basis for the animal industry too, a recommendation that would significantly change how the livestock industry operates.
Equally non-newsworthy was the press release issued by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture (NIAA) after it hosted a symposium on the same issue that same week.
In it, the NIAA rambles from the obvious: "antibiotics dramatically improve human, animal and plant health, and increase life expectancy," to the surreal, characterizing antimicrobial resistance as a "topic" that is "subtle, complex, difficult and polarizing."
What is noteworthy is that so little is being done to address it, despite health agencies from the World Health Organization right down to local public health officials ringing alarm bells.
Here in Canada, it's like a UFO on the radar screen. Everyone seems to realize it's big and potentially harmful, but no one wants to venture out of the control tower to deal with it.
Three federal agencies, the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada monitor for resistant microbes in the food-animal sector. That surveillance shows antimicrobial resistance is growing, but none of those agencies has the authority to address it.
Health Canada encourages prudent use of antimicrobial drugs. It recommends against mass-medication use in feed and water. But the key words are "encourage" and "recommends."
Veterinarians are regulated by provincial governments and how they prescribe these medications can be monitored. But producers don't need a vet's prescription to obtain them.
"Canada is one of the few industrialized countries that allows over-the-counter sale of antimicrobials for food animals," says the 2002 report "Uses of Antimicrobials in Food Animals in Canada: Impact on Resistance and Human Health" prepared for Health Canada.
In short, antimicrobial use in the animal industry falls through a regulatory loophole. When used as growth promoters or as preventative therapy against infections when animals are stressed or kept in crowded conditions, producers have a free rein. And that's the way the industry likes it.
"On first glance, movement to a prescription-only system would appear to be a logical step towards more responsible use of antimicrobials. On purely scientific or public health grounds, there is little argument against a prescription-only system," says the Health Canada report, now 10 years old. "The committee was made well aware, however, that things are not quite so simple or straightforward, and that there are socioeconomic arguments (e.g. costs and convenience) against such a system."
The U.S. is at least talking about action. After being reprimanded by a U.S. federal court judge, last April the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked companies to over the next three years phase out antibiotics for uses such as promoting growth in livestock.
If the U.S. livestock industry has to reduce its reliance on antibiotics to prevent illness or promote growth, Canada will be forced to follow, if for no other reason than maintaining its access to that market.
Oh yes, it would also be good for public health.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org