Overusing antibiotics has spurred a crisis in antibiotic resistance.
Since their advent in the 1940s, it’s been no secret that the more you use antibiotics, the quicker bacteria get resistant to them.
What’s newer is the realization of the scale of antibiotic overuse, at least in agriculture. Since 2010, the FDA has collected data from pharmaceutical companies definitively showing that more than 80 percent of all U.S. antibiotics – some 29 million lbs per year– are sold for use in livestock or poultry. Ninety percent of these are put at low doses into livestock feed or water for flocks or herds, often to spur growth or economic gain and not to treat a diagnosed disease.
What’s also new is that bacteria generally now have the capability to become resistant to most if not all antibiotics quite quickly. More and more now, people are getting sick and dying from infections that no longer respond easily to antibiotics. Some, like MRSA, have become household names. Others are less known, though often no less deadly.
But most resistant infections still take place in hospitals. Inside those walls, the impact is huge: Patients with resistant infections get sicker, stay in the hospital longer, and die more frequently than do patients with non-resistant bugs. The economics are scary, too. Resistant hospital infections cost $18,000 to $29,000 per case to treat, causing a cumulative $20 billion price tag for the nation.
Precisely because the victims of highly resistant infections typically land in the hospitals, however, they remain largely invisible. Due to patient confidentiality, their stories are little told. heir pictures fail to make their way into newspapers. Families may know their loved ones died of a bad infection, but not appreciate the role that resistance has played. It’s uncommon for the words “antibiotic resistant” to work their way into obituaries, or for pictures of victims to be so identified in news stories. Out of sight, out of mind.
The irony is that with an estimated 900,000 cases of resistant infections per year, there must be plenty of folks out there with personal experience. Yet it is a nearly faceless epidemic. And that simple fact works against mobilizing support for changes to farm policy that could help turn this situation around by making sure antibiotics are used only when necessary. Help us turn that around.
At IATP’s Healthy Food Action, we have long worked to collect some of these stories. Farmers, farmworkers – even veterinarians – are at greater risk from antibiotic resistant infections. Some of their stories, like this one from Kim, can now be found at Keep Antibiotics Working, where, as co-founders, we’ve served on the executive committee for the past 12 years.
“I was working on a local CAFO caring for 1200 hogs, 8 hours a day. Getting them fed was a big enough undertaking let alone administering B-12 shots and antibiotics as a routine part of their care. If they weren’t eating well I would medicate them. If they had a small wound or a runny nose I would medicate them. In fact, medicating the hogs was mandatory protocol at every farm I’d ever worked. Now, I’m not a veterinarian or even close—but, unlike human medicine that requires a licensed professional to prescribe and dispense drugs, Penicillin, Tylan or Lincomax were abundantly available to those of us who cared for the hogs. Antibiotics were considered a “fix all” for everything -- starting at birth, giving newborn piglets a shot of penicillin, and continuing medication, even in their feed, throughout their short lives…..
Early in March a small bump appeared on the back of Dale’s left thigh. I noticed it, but thought nothing of it. Two days later Dale had noticed it as well since it had grown in size and color. Thinking it might be a spider bite we made a trip to the ER and sure enough, that was the diagnosis. An antibiotic was prescribed and we were sent home. The following evening the “bite” had grown to silver dollar size so we headed to the ER again. A couple hours and blood tests later it was confirmed that Dale had methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. This time we headed home with an antibiotic drip. By the next morning, Dale was rushed into surgery because it had grown another inch and half to the size of a tennis ball and they were cutting the flesh-eating disease out of his leg.
That very same day I noticed a small bump, identical to Dale’s, on my daughter’s leg. I immediately rushed her to the ER and requested she be tested for MRSA. Just as I feared, it came back positive…..
On my doctor’s recommendation, I stayed home from work a few days. With time on my hands, I obsessively set my mind on learning everything I could about MRSA….. I was shocked to learn that hog farmers who handle an abundance of antibiotics are a main carrier of MRSA. The idea that I brought this home to my family plagued me. I could not wait to return to work so I could alert everyone else to the dangers of this issue.”
Share these stories, with your friends, your colleagues, your members of Congress. Help us make them aware of the critical connection between the resistance epidemic, and the huge overuse of antibiotics in agriculture.
Help us create more stories. Contact me with your own, @Food_dr on Twitter, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or if you have had patients suffer from resistant infections connected by science to agriculture, especially including drug-resistant Salmonella, Campylobacter, resistant UTI and other E coli infections, MRSA and any resistant infection in farmers or farmworkers, think about sharing their stories as well (with their permission, of course).