Upshot from Pediatricians: Curb overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture

With a landmark new law in California, and new commitments from Subway - the world's largest restaurant chain - the momentum seems to be shifting in the decades-old struggle to rein in enormous antibiotic overuse in factory-style livestock production.

With today's publication of a report and plea in the December issue of Pediatrics, the nation's largest group of children's physicians adds its voice to the chorus. "Animal antibiotics threatens kids' health", read a headline in the medical press. And they do.

Antibiotic overuse drives the problem of resistance. And a large majority of the nation's penicillines, tetracyclines, cephalospporins and other human drugs are given to food animals, not sick people. As the AAP report surmises: Antibiotic use in animals must be addressed because more antibiotics by tonnage are used in animals than in people.

Says report's co-author Dr. Jerry Paulson, "Because of the link between antibiotic use in food-producing animals and the occurrence of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, antibiotic agents should be used in food-producing animals only to treat and control infectious diseases and not to promote growth or to prevent disease routinely," the report concludes.

From the CDC's Director to the Chief Medical Officer of the UK, physicians have long warned our antibiotics are losing their effectiveness. At risk is not only our ability to treat infections, but also to perform life-saving procedures on kids and adults with cancer or kidney failure, like chemotherapy, dialysis and bone marrow transplants. Without working antibiotics, these procedures can't be done safely, since complications with bacterial infections are an ever-present risk.

Yet until now medical organizations have been slow to demand that American meat and pharmaceutical companies stop overusing antibiotics. In fact, the vast majority of antibiotics of human importance are given to chickens, turkeys, pigs or cattle - typically for reasons that have nothing to do with treating a diagnosed disease. Instead, they are routinely put into animal feed or water for purposes like promoting growth, or as a temporary band-aid for animals that are being raised under sub-optimal, infection-promoting conditions.

Sadly, actions of the Food and Drug Administration to date likely will do little to address this situation. Indeed, the FDA has been clear that its approach leaves in place the practice of routinely feeding human antibiotics to livestock and poultry, just so long as a veterinarian (often in the employ of the meat industry) has signed off on it.

Moreover, Congress has been slow to appropriate money asked for by President Obama to implement a new national action plan to combat antibiotic resistant bacteria.

That's why issuance of this new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics is such a big deal. Basically, it's saying business as usual in factory-style livestock production is no longer acceptable because of the threat it poses to the health and welfare of our children (and the rest of us, I might add).

Bravo, I say. Will the nation's top organizations of internists, surgeons and women's health now be emboldened to speak out on behalf of their adult patients, as well? I sure hope so.

About the Authors

David Wallinga, MD

Senior Health Advisor, Healthy People & Thriving Communities

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