Stronger actions needed to prevent antibiotic crisis

The OlympianDecember 20, 2013 

If your doctor used a Band-Aid to treat a deep cut that obviously needed stitches, you would probably look for another family physician. So what should Americans do when the Food and Drug Administration takes a similarly lackadaisical approach to curbing the overuse of antibiotics?

In two separate but related initiatives to slow the development of bacterial infections resistant to antibiotics, the FDA announced ineffectual measures that pander to powerful industry lobbies at the peril of public health.

The agency asked the pharmaceutical industry to voluntarily change labels on antibiotics to remove any reference to the drug’s legal nonmedical use in animal production. That would allow the FDA to take action against livestock producers who use antibiotics to speed growth in animals.

It’s estimated the livestock industry uses 80 percent of all antibiotics in the United States. In 2011, animal growers used 29.9 million pounds of antibiotics. Only 7.7 million pounds were used to treat humans.

Livestock operations use low doses of antibiotics to prevent diseases in crowded growing conditions and to boost growth. Their use saves the industry millions every year in veterinarian bills, loss of animals and lower feed volumes.

Reports published earlier this year said antibiotic-resistant bacteria contaminated 81 percent of raw ground turkey, 69 percent of pork chops, 55 percent of ground beef and 39 percent of chicken.

In a related move, the FDA asked the manufacturers of anti-bacterial soap to prove within the next three years that their products are safe and more effective than plain old soap and water. The agency believes these soaps and body washes are not only ineffective, but actually do harm to people’s immune systems.

We’re glad the FDA is doing something, but these measures pale in comparison to the problem.

Last September, the agency said continued antibiotic overuse will have “potentially catastrophic consequences.” It has recently said, “Governments around the world consider antimicrobial-resistant bacteria a major threat to public health.”

By its own words, the FDA’s two recent actions are, at best, a Band-Aid.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 2 million people suffer antibiotic-resistant infections annually. At least 23,000 of those people die.

It’s obvious that stronger, mandated policies are required. But aggressive lobbying by the livestock, pharmaceutical and soap industries has so far prevented any serious legislation.

Even a simple mandatory ban on using antibiotics on healthy animals, as proposed by the unsuccessful Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, failed to get any traction in this do-nothing Congress.

Give the slow-moving FDA credit for doing something, and getting the conversation started. But write Rep. Denny Heck and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell to encourage more effective regulatory action.

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