Antibiotics have been an extraordinary addition to medicine and the protection of public health. Before the advent of antibiotics, 90 percent of children who contracted bacterial meningitis died. Common ailments such as pneumonia and tuberculosis often were fatal illnesses. Today, these are largely curable, thanks to antibiotics. Another way to put the importance of antibiotics in perspective is the fact that before World War II, when penicillin was first mass produced, more U.S. soldiers died from infections than from combat wounds.
Unfortunately, bacteria are remarkable, too. When bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, most of them are susceptible to the drug and die. Some, however, possess traits that allow them to survive. Left without competition for food from their more vulnerable counterparts, these resistant bacteria replicate very quickly. In addition, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are able to share their resistance with other bacteria by passing along key genetic material, enabling antibiotic resistance to spread rapidly.
As a result, antibiotics become less effective and infections are harder to treat. In the U.S., the problem is widespread. More than 2 million people are infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and more than 23,000 people die as a direct result of those infections each year.
The development of some amount of antibiotic resistance is inevitable whenever antibiotics are used. However, overuse of antibiotics causes the problem to grow faster than would otherwise be the case. Here in the U.S., one of the biggest areas of antibiotic overuse is on factory farms, where antibiotics are fed to animals to speed their weight gain and prevent the spread of disease in crowded conditions. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread from animals to humans, threatening public health.
The Food and Drug Administration recently issued new guidelines to pharmaceutical companies, asking them to end the labeling and sale of antibiotics to farms for growth promotion. Our new report, Weak Medicine: Why the FDA’s Guidelines Are Inadequate to Curb Antibiotic Resistance and Protect Public Health, explains why the FDA’s action is unlikely to significantly reduce the problem of antibiotic resistance.
While the guidelines may end the practice of feeding antibiotics to animals to help them gain weight with less feed, the recommendations do not affect the bulk of antibiotics given to livestock. To maintain the power of antibiotics to treat infections and protect public health, further restrictions are needed that will limit the use of antibiotics in livestock production to cases of animal sickness or direct disease exposure.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her husband and son.