Want to ensure that miracle drugs can no longer perform miracles?
Then do what some physicians and industrial livestock farmers have done for years: Overprescribe antibiotics to people, and use them cavalierly in farm animals to promote growth or prevent infections before they even occur.
Routine use of antibiotics makes some bacteria stronger and resistant to treatment. When those hardier bugs infect a person, antibiotics might no longer work. Last month, federal officials quantified that danger: At least 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which said that’s a conservative figure. That’s why smart doctors resist prescribing antibiotics for every minor ailment.
Chickens, pigs, cattle and other "food animals" don’t necessarily need a prescription. They have long been fed antibiotics to plump them up and prevent diseases that spread easily in crowded factory farms.
For more than four decades, scientists and government health agencies have warned about the danger this poses for development of drug-resistant bugs. Yet last week, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future reported that little progress has been made on limiting the use of antibiotics on farms.
The agriculture industry maintains that the connection is murky between antibiotic use in animals and drug resistance in people. On the other side of the debate is a long list of scientists, public health officials and veterinarians whose views carry more sense and less self-interest. In 2011 alone, 1.9 million pounds of penicillins and 12.3 million pounds of tetracyclines were sold for use in food animals. It’s hard to believe that wouldn’t have an effect.
According to the CDC, humans can pick up drug-resistant bugs through contact with animals or by eating contaminated food. For example, the Campylobacter bacteria, which lives in chickens, can cause diarrhea in humans who eat undercooked chicken.
In 1995, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a fluoroquinolones, an antibiotic, in chickens. Soon, doctors started seeing strains of Campylobacter bacteria -- resistant to fluoroquinolones -- in sick people. The FDA eventually banned its use in chickens.
But neither Congress nor the FDA has acted to curtail the broad dangers. The well-financed agriculture industry has won most rounds. And regulators have dragged their feet.
Instead of mandating strict limits, the FDA has issued "guidance" calling on drug makers to stop selling certain antibiotics for unnecessary livestock use, and on farmers and ranchers to stop using the drugs for growth. Use for disease control is still permitted. Will drug makers and farmers really volunteer to give up tens of millions of dollars in profits without a government requirement?
The FDA would give drug makers three more years to comply with its guidance, which still needs final administration approval. That seems like a long time for excessive use to continue and for bugs to keep getting stronger.