BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics are killing people and scientists and public officials are sounding the alarm.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a recent report on the overuse of antibiotics, called it a global public health threat with “potentially catastrophic consequences.”
In the U.S. alone, 23,000 die every year and 2 million are sickened by bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics.
Dr. Tom Frieden, CDC director said not having effective antibiotics to fight infectious diseases “will undermine our ability to fight infectious diseases and manage the infectious complications” in vulnerable patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, dialysis and surgery, especially organ transplants.
President Obama in September called the rise of resistant bacteria “a serious threat to public health and the economy.”
One focus is on farm animals which get more antibiotics than people, the CDC concluded based on FDA data.
“This is life or death. This is critical,” said Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-NY 25th District) who represents the Rochester area in Congress.
Slaughter, the only microbiologist in Congress, has been fighting since 1999 against the practice of giving antibiotics to cattle to fatten them up and keep them healthy.
“It would be like putting antibiotics in your child’s Cheerios every morning to try to keep them well,” said Slaughter.
“As a microbiologist I cannot get over the astonishment and anger that one of the best medical breakthroughs in the history of the world has been frittered away with careless use to no end except to get more money at the market,” she added.
Mark O’Brian, a molecular biologist at the University at Buffalo, said antibiotics are used to control illness among animals that live in close quarters.
“They are genetically very similar to each other so if one animal gets sick the likelihood of other animals getting sick becomes very high so many farmers especially large-scale farmers will feed antibiotics to their animals,” said O’Brian.
“Resistant bacteria can contaminate the foods that come from those animals and people who consume these foods can develop antibiotic resistant infections,” said the CDC in its recent report, “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013.”
The CDC concluded that “antibiotics should be used in food-producing animals only under veterinary oversight and only to manage and treat infectious diseases, not to promote growth.”
How much antibiotics do animals get?
Slaughter’s office asked the FDA to answer that question in 2010 and the answer has since been widely quoted and debated.
“It took us an arm and a leg to finally wring out that answer but 80% of the antibiotics that are produced in the US are fed to livestock and cattle,” said Slaughter.
The beef industry disputes that number, but Slaughter’s office said they computed the number based on information from the FDA on animal use (13.3 million kilograms) and human use (3.3 million kilograms) of antibiotics in 2009.
A spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association says 80 percent is a top end estimate of a number that is difficult to come up with.
Since 1999 Slaughter has been pushing The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, a bill to save eight classes of antibiotics to fight infections in people. She also supports another bill, Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency in Animals (DATA) Act that requires more reporting from the FDA.
“Now the lobbying against the bill that I have is so intense that 88% of the lobbying last year done on this bill was opposing it by agribusiness,” said Slaughter.
The FDA recently enlisted the food and drug industries to voluntarily reduce the use of antibiotics in farm animals. Giving antibiotics to prevent or treat illness would need a veterinarian’s approval.
While she’s happy to see the attention, Slaughter says the FDA’s action is just not enough.
“We finally got some attention from the FDA. All they did was say we will give you three more years to voluntarily cut down on the use of antibiotics. They have no way to keep records of it or even determine that it’s being done,” said Slaughter.
She says consumers need to have a say.
“I don’t think the American public is nearly as aware of it,” Slaughter said.
The industry says it supports the FDA’s call for the “judicious use” of antibiotics. A spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said using antibiotics for prevention “is important to our industry, as healthy animals are the key to a safe product for the consumer.”
Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a non-profit consumer group based in Washington, D.C., says the FDA has left a loophole that will allow animals to continue receiving antibiotics to prevent illness.
“They (FDA) made a big announcement saying you can’t use them for growth promotion anymore, and that’s good,” said Lovera.
“There were two loopholes and they only closed one and that second loophole is wide open,” she added.
Dr. Michael Apley is a clinical pharmacologist and an expert on giving antibiotics to farm animals. While he shares concerns about bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, he does not agree that legislation is the answer.
“Their bills as written would result in needless animal suffering and loss,” said Apley, a professor of production medicine and clinical pharmacology at Kansas State University.
Apley said he opposes the Slaughter bill and a similar bill by Senator Dianne Feinstein, (D-California), because they would impact how animals are raised. He says he would rather allow the FDA to continue to use its regulatory powers to control antibiotic use in animals.
The FDA is already having an impact by asking drug companies to voluntarily stop allowing antibiotics to be used to promote growth in animals, said Apley. Starting in December, 2016 veterinarians will have to approve use of antibiotics for prevention and control.
“The message to veterinarians is we’re going to not only be responsible but accountable,” said Apley.
On the use of medically important antibiotics in animals, Apley computed the sales numbers for humans and animals based on 2011 FDA reports. While Slaughter quotes 80 percent of all antibiotics are used on animals, Apley said the number should be more like 74 percent.
“Just comparing total weights of antimicrobials sold can be incredibly misleading because of different potencies, spectrums, and the nature of the bacteria to which they are being exposed.”
The CDC has labeled three bacteria as posing an urgent threat level:
Clostridium Difficile, which causes life threatening diarrhea, occurs mostly in people who have been given antibiotics and been in a medical facility. It results in 14,000 deaths per year and 250,000 infections requiring hospitalizations.
CRE bacteria (enterobacteriaceae) which is up among people in hospitals. Almost half of those infected with the CRE bacteria die, the CDC said.
And, the drug resistant Neisseria Gonorrhoeae, a sexually transmitted disease, is the second most commonly reported notifiable infection in the United States. The disease is woefully under reported and almost a third of the 820,000 estimated cases are resistant to any antibiotic.