The overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and medicine is putting human lives at unnecessary risk and driving up medical costs, according to a group of group of 150 scientists that includes a former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Along with 50 US farmers and ranchers who have opted out of using non-therapeutic antibiotics in their animal feed, the scientists are calling on the FDA and Congress to work together to regulate unnecessary use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.
In twin statements released on Wednesday, the scientists and farmers said that a growing body of research supported the conclusion that overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is fueling a health crisis. One statement cited a study which estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections cost $20bn annually to hospitals alone.
Donald Kennedy, former FDA commissioner and president emeritus at Stanford University, said: “There’s no question that routinely administering non-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to food animals contributes to antibiotic resistance.”
Kennedy said the FDA’s current voluntary approach, which asks the animal drug industry to stop selling antibiotics medically important to human disease as growth promoters in animal feed, was not enough. Kennedy, who was also former editor-in-chief of Science magazine for eight years, said: “Unless it reaches the industry as a regulatory requirement it will not be taken seriously.”
Three decades after the FDA determined that growth-promoting uses of penicillin and tetracycline in agriculture were threatening human health, its own data shows that 80% of all antimicrobial drugs sold nationally are used in animal agriculture.
A new strain of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA, has been discovered in cows and humans in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe, researchers reported Thursday. The new strain disturbs researchers because it evades one of the most commonly used tests to detect MRSA, which could lead physicians to prescribe the wrong antibiotics to treat the infection. The new strain of the bacterium is still relatively rare and, so far, no deaths have been attributed to it, the team reported in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases. Its discovery in cows raises a new question about the origin of MRSA outbreaks, however: Are cows a natural reservoir for the infections or are they infected by humans who come into contact with them?
The presence of the bacteria in cows does not present a threat to the food supply because it is killed during the pasteurization process. But the infection can be transmitted to humans who come into close contact with the animals, and these workers can then pass the bacteria into the general population.
Although MRSA infections may be declining in the United States, they still represent a serious healthcare problem, with an estimated 90,000 new infections linked to healthcare facilities each year and about 15,000 deaths, mostly in older people or those with underlying health problems.