Bacteria such as Staphlococcus aureus and Nisseria gonorrhea have become resistant to numerous antibiotics, leading many health officials to express concerns that soon we may not be able to cure diseases that used to be susceptible to such drugs. In addition, as we have written, using antibiotics to prevent infection during surgery may be threatened if resistance becomes even more widespread.
One reason for the rise of antibiotic resistance is the misuse of the drugs to treat viral infections for flu and colds, for example. But another possible reason has recently been emphasized by the American Academy of Pediatrics: the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animals.
Of course, animals that are sick must be treated with the appropriate pharmaceutical agents. But antibiotics are also used in healthy animals as they promote growth (no-one seems to know exactly why), and may help prevent diseases when animals are kept in large groups, as many are.
The physicians' group reports that over two million Americans suffered with antibiotic-resistant illnesses each year, and over 23,000 deaths resulted from these infections. Although it is widely acknowledged that over-use and misuse of antimicrobials in humans do play a role in the development of resistance, the AAP charges that when food animals are treated with drugs that are also used in treating human diseases, the risk of humans developing a drug-resistant infection is increased.
Officials point out that over 32 million pounds of pharmaceuticals are purchased annually for animals use in the U.S., compared to about seven million pounds purchased for use in human disease. Further, they state that drugs for animal uses may be purchased over the counter, and used without any veterinary oversight. The concern is that if bacteria in animals develop resistance, they may be transmitted to humans when they or their products are consumed.
In addition, the AAP states that farmers and farm workers are at greater risk of infection than the general public because of their increased contact with animals carrying resistant bacteria. Although animal products are the main vectors of such bacteria, it is also true that cross contamination of fruit and vegetable products can be affected if untreated or minimally-treated animal waste water is used for irrigation.
In particular, the group noted, incidence of infections was greatest in children under five years old. Salmonella infections are a leading cause of foodborne illness in children, and the AAP cites data that in 2013, there were 100,000 cases of drug-resistant Salmonella in the U.S.
This report by the AAP should go far in convincing people that antibiotic resistance in food animals is a serious concern, and that both this issue as well as antibiotic over-use in humans must be addressed. Thus it is somewhat ironic that in another research study efforts to improve the prescribing of antibiotics for urinary tract infections resulted in an increase in antibiotic prescriptions. This was true even for one study group in which doctors were encouraged to delay prescribing for patients whose problem was not clearly a UTI.
Clearly, the problem of antibiotic resistance whether in food animals or in medical practice will not be easily solved. However, it must be addressed if we are not to return to a condition of vulnerability to a myriad of diseases.