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‘Untreatable;’ A call for change

September 25, 2013

In a report titled “Untreatable,” the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) last week warned about serious health threats from infections that are increasingly resistant to antibiotics and pointed to the unnecessary use of antibiotics in contributing to the rising risk that one day “our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives,” in the words of CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD.

According to the report, “up to 50% of all the antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed or are not prescribed appropriately.” This, of course, means that doctors must be more circumspect when dispensing antibiotics prescriptions and patients must be less insistent about asking for them. Caution all around seemed to be the advice the CDC was dispensing.

But something else in the announcement caught our eye.

“Antibiotics are also commonly used in food-producing animals to prevent, control and treat disease, and to promote growth,” the report stated. In fact, The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are used for non-therapeutic purposes in livestock production. We find this practice to be not only unnecessary and inappropriate, but also unconscionable. While the CDC worries about the public health impact and countless consumers about their personal health, corporate food producers routinely feeding these drugs to livestock is all about, and only about, the corporate bottom line.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finalized its voluntary recommendations on “The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals.” We find the guidance woefully weak. It not only condones non-therapeutic preventive uses, but also is nonbinding and thus unenforceable. This situation prompts the question: if the FDA is not doing enough, who will?

Congress has gotten into the act.

In March, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY25) introduced House bill HR1150, “The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act 2013” and in June in the Senate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced “The Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act 2103.” Ten days later, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand signed on to co-sponsor. Both bills are in committee in their respective chambers. But the sad truth is that given the power of lobbyists and the current dysfunction in Congress, passage of these proposals is uncertain at best.