UN Recognizes Resistance Crisis, but Soft Pedals Solutions

To keep our life-saving drugs working, we need urgent reform to the way they are used.
Credit: iStock

The UN put out an important report yesterday that called much-needed attention to the antibiotic resistance crisis that imperils all of us—reporting that these so-called superbug infections could kill 10 million people worldwide every year by 2050. Beyond the devastating health impacts, the report also warns the crisis could “cause damage to the economy as catastrophic as during the 2008-2009 global financial crisis,” noting that by 2030 it “could force up to 24 million people into extreme poverty.”

This important wake-up call echoes warnings global health experts have been sounding for years. Unfortunately, some of its recommendations fall short—emphasizing policies we already know are inadequate to meet the scale of this challenge. To keep our life-saving drugs working, we need urgent reform to the way they are used.

This must start by putting an end to the massive amount of antibiotics given to livestock when they are not sick. That’s because two-thirds of antibiotics that are important to human medicine are actually sold for use in livestock, not people, in the U.S. Most of these drugs are not used to treat sick animals, but rather distributed en masse in feed and water, to compensate for the crowded and often unsanitary conditions on many industrial livestock facilities. (As the report notes, livestock use is higher than human use in many other countries as well.)

This waste is dangerous because the more we use antibiotics—in people or animals—the more likely it is that drug-resistant bacteria will grow and spread. This means that essential medicines will be more and more likely to fail when we need them most. It means that common surgeries and medical procedures that rely on the continued effectiveness of antibiotics to address infection are in jeopardy and may not be viable in the future. It means more pain and suffering, and death and also longer hospital stays and higher costs.

European countries have already taken the lead in addressing the problem, with Denmark and Netherlands leading the way. The European Union has not only banned the use of antibiotics to help animals put on weight more quickly, recently, they went further and banned the practice of regularly dosing groups of animals that are not sick with antibiotics, to “prevent” disease (usually, this means using antibiotics as compensation for crowded and unsanitary conditions). That restriction is set to go into effect in 2022.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has lumbered to a slow and partial response. After much prodding, the Food and Drug Administration imposed a ban on antibiotic use to fatten up animals, a decade after the EU had already taken that action. But the U.S. continues to allow regular preventive use, a practice Denmark and Netherlands banned years ago, and use in the US remains much higher than in the EU.  

To address the problem of overuse of antibiotics in livestock production, the UN report starts with the lowest of bars: recommending that countries start by banning the use of a subset of the most important antibiotics to speed up animal growth. At a bare minimum, all countries should put an immediate end to squandering all human-class antibiotics just to help livestock producers fatten up animals a little more quickly. This change has already been instituted in Europe and the U.S. without any negative economic consequences. And the European countries that have gone much further have done so without harming farmers or their economy.

While there is a lot that the UN report gets right about the scale of this global problem, it missed an opportunity to push the conversation forward in a way that could truly solve it. Baby steps of yesteryear will not cut it. Meat producers worldwide must stop wasting our miracle drugs on livestock when they are not sick, before it’s too late.

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.

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