Superbugs, or bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics, kill 23,000 people in the United States each year, people who ordinarily would have been saved by antibiotics. Another two million fall sick. The deadly organisms can thank factory farmers, among others, for their rise.
The victims include 18-year-old Marine recruit Richard Campbell-Smith, who got a scratch from a bush that allowed a common bacteria to enter his body. The usual treatments didn’t work because the bacteria had evolved to resist antibiotics, so he died.
27-year-old Joshua Nahum, an aspiring child psychologist, went to a rehab facility after an accident broke some bones. He acquired an infection there and died when antibiotics couldn’t cure it.
12-year-old Carlos Don fell ill at summer camp with a pneumonia that survived a course of antibiotics and went on to kill him.
Stories like these abounded before 1940, when scientists isolated penicillin and turned it into medication. This human ingenuity has saved the lives of millions. Now human greed is helping turn back the clock to those long-ago, tragic days, as factory farmers administer vast quantities of antibiotics to animals raised for meat to make them grow faster, which means fewer days of feeding them, which means bigger profits.
Humans take antibiotics too, sometimes when they don’t need them. That is also part of the problem. When bacteria are exposed to antibiotics over and over again in different people, they can figure things out and evolve to survive the treatment. The more we use antibiotics, the more exposure bacteria get, and the more of them manage to develop immunity to our only defense against them. The Centers for Disease Control considers hospitals a more threatening breeding ground than factory farms for superbugs.
The CDC is finally starting to make noise about this problem. In a report released September 16th, the CDC acknowledged “the link between antibiotic use in food-producing animals and the occurrence of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.” To address this problem, the agency announced that “antibiotics should be used in food-producing animals only under veterinary oversight and only to manage and treat infectious diseases.” This would reduce the amount of antibiotics wasted on healthy animals by millions of pounds. If only the government would turn the CDC’s observation into a law, and give it teeth.
Instead, the government, which includes several agencies whose mission is to protect our health, has done nothing to help us. The Food and Drug Administration didn’t lift a finger until a federal judge forced them to, as I reported here last year. Even then the FDA managed to avoid accomplishing anything by adopting only voluntary restrictions on antibiotic use in agriculture.
While the executive branch has looked on complacently as business kills citizens, some legislators have sounded the call to battle. Senator Barbara Boxer and Congresswoman Louise Slaughter have repeatedly introduced a bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, but Congress has repeatedly refused to pass it. No doubt lobbyists representing agribusiness and the pharmaceutical companies that supply it have a role in that.
Not eating meat won’t help you protect yourself from superbugs, because animals work the antibiotics out of their systems before they are slaughtered for meat. While they are still carrying the antibiotics, though, they produce manure that farms apply to fields of crops, which are sold to consumers as food. The people most at risk are the ones who live near livestock operations and those crops. That includes the people who own and work at these businesses. To protect their own health, they must change their ways.
To protect all of us, the federal government has to step up and do its job. Please sign our petition to ask the FDA to implement rules banning farmers from giving antibiotics to animals except to treat actual illnesses.
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