In the long twilight struggle between humankind and germs there has been a disheartening setback: The invaders have devised an ingenious new way to protect themselves. To fight back, we humans are going to need to change how we treat our fellow animals, especially livestock.
A freshly evolved gene capable of neutralizing the strongest antibiotic drugs moves the world closer to a future in which infections become untreatable. The gene appears to have arisen from the agricultural use of antibiotics in China. And the new threat underlines the need to limit treating animals with antibiotics.
A pig living on a farm in Shanghai was found to have a strain of E. coli resistant to colistin, one in a family of antibiotics that are used as a last resort in treating drug-resistant infections in humans.
For the moment, the problem seems to be limited to China, one of the world’s largest users of colistin in agriculture. But the antibiotic is also widely used on farms in Europe and Southeast Asia.
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China is now reassessing the use of colistin in livestock feed. It needs to move quickly.
Europe has for almost a decade banned the nonmedical use of antibiotics in agriculture, and in the U.S. the Food and Drug Administration is setting up restrictions that amount to nearly the same thing. But such bans alone haven’t made a drastic difference. To successfully decrease their use of drugs without hurting their animals’ health, farmers have to reduce density and otherwise improve the way livestock are housed and fed.