One of the most challenging threats to the progress of medical science is the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to a 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control, antibiotic-resistant bacteria killed 23,0000 Americans, and sickened a staggering two million more. Only a few years ago, many of those deaths would have been prevented and illnesses cured with a standard course of antibiotics.
No longer. Antibiotics have been a wonder drug ever since they were introduced in the 1940s, but medical researchers have had to play an incessant game of catch up, developing ever-stronger antibiotics as strains of bacteria become resistant to existing medications. However, the formation of new antibiotic-resistant bacteria has begun to outpace science’s ability to create new countermeasures. The CDC has called the absence of stronger antibiotics in the pipeline a potential catastrophe.
Antibiotics are becoming dangerously impotent because they are terribly over-prescribed. The CDC estimates that approximately half of all antibiotics are prescribed unnecessarily. Antibiotics are taken for colds, sore throats and viral diseases — illnesses on which they have no positive effect. The unnecessary antibiotics then kill off good bacteria, leaving room for resistant bacteria to multiply and grow.
Another factor contributing to the rise of these bacteria is the enormous proliferation of antibiotic use in our meat and poultry supply. Farmers use antibiotics with wild abandon, mixing them into the animals’ feed to promote growth and fight disease. Besides the unknown risks such antibiotic use poses to humans, the widespread use of antibiotics in animals vastly increases the number of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
That’s why we support the FDA for recommending restrictions on the use of antibiotics for promoting growth in animals. Drug-makers are being asked to voluntarily label some of their products as only fit for humans. That will, in effect, make the use of antibiotics for animal-growth purposes illegal. Farmers will only be permitted to give animals antibiotics if they are prescribed by a veterinarian.
The FDA’s move is a good, long-overdue first step in stemming the overuse of antibiotics; however, more enforcement is necessary. First, the agency must give more teeth to clamping down on their use in food animals. Recommendations are not likely to go far in countering use in the face of the strong promotion of antibiotics from pharmaceutical companies. There’s a lot of money involved. More antibiotics — a full 80 percent of the total— are produced for animals than for humans.
Second, more education is needed to teach individuals that antibiotics are not some kind of magic elixir for every cough, flu or ear infection. Those who take antibiotics indiscriminately are not only harming themselves but also those around them, who can become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.