If forced to choose to save your life, which would you pick: amputating your leg or a lifetime on dialysis?
Unfortunately, this isn't a hypothetical scenario. While meeting with a lawmaker, I heard an infectious disease physician tell a tragic story of his patient who had fallen off a ladder at work, hurt his leg, and contracted an antibiotic-resistant infection. After every antibiotic tried failed to heal infection, the physician was left with one final option - a drug of last resort. The problem is that it is a drug of last resort because it is so toxic and would destroy the patient's kidneys. And thus, the patient - a man who spent all day on his feet working - had to make this agonizing decision because the miracle drugs that we rely on are losing their effectiveness.
And he's not alone. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year, 2 million people in the U.S. contract antibiotic-resistant infections, and 23,000 people die of those infections.
Today, Maryland is poised to take a strong stand in battling this crisis. Senators Paul Pinsky and Shirley Nathan-Pulliam today introduced state bills to stop the misuse of antibiotics in raising food-producing animals in Maryland - a practice that is fueling the growth of drug-resistant superbugs that threaten human health. [Updated: The bill number is SB 607.] Delegates Shane Robinson and Clarence Lam will be introducing a similar House bill soon. Delegate Kumar Barve, Chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee said, "If we lose antibiotic effectiveness we will immediately go back to the 19th century."
The introduction of the bill comes just a few months after California passed a similar law last fall.
New Poll Shows Strong, Broad, Bipartisan Support
A new independent poll commissioned by NRDC and also released today shows there is strong and broad support for the bill statewide - across party lines and geography. Across Maryland, 68 percent favor state legislation that would restrict the regular use of medically important antibiotics in industrial agriculture and reserve them for use only when animals are sick.
Check out how the favorable numbers break down by party:
- 74% of Democrats,
- 58% of Republicans, and
- 68% of Independents support such legislation.
The geographic breakdown of support for the legislation is just as broad.
- 72.2 % of Baltimore City,
- 68.4 % of Baltimore suburbs,
- 67.6% of Washington suburbs,
- 66.6% of Eastern Shore and southern Maryland, and
- 67.1% of Western Maryland support such legislation.
Overuse in livestock threatens human health
Why the focus on antibiotics used in animal agriculture to address a human health crisis?
Any use of antibiotics allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to flourish. For that reason, hospitals, physicians, and nurses have all been developing strong antibiotic stewardship programs to ensure that they are prescribing the right drug, at the right dose, for the right duration for their patients.
As it turns out, approximately 70 percent of the medically important antibiotics - that is, the antibiotics that we use to treat diseases in humans - that are sold in the U.S. are sold for use in animal agriculture. And most of these antibiotics are not used to treat sick animals, but rather to help them grow fatter, faster and to compensate for crowded conditions and inappropriate diets.
And the bill introduced today would do just that. It allows medically important antibiotics to be used to treat sick animals under a veterinarian's guidance, but prohibits their use to make animals grow fatter or for routine purposes.
That's why groups like the Maryland Nurses Association and the Nurse Practitioners Association of Maryland have joined the Maryland Campaign to Keep Antibiotics Working and are pushing to help pass this bill.
As Senator Nathan-Pulliam, who is also a registered nurse, puts it: "This bill is going to help us fight against the antibiotic-resistant epidemic that is raging out of control. There is no time to wait. We have to act now if we want to number of deaths occurring due to antibiotic resistance, which is 23,000 according to the CDC."
Farmers are already showing it can done
The good news is that farmers in Maryland and nationwide are already demonstrating that routine use of medically important antibiotics is unnecessary.
Maryland-based Perdue Farms - one of the nation's largest chicken producers - has been producing chicken without the routine use of medically important antibiotics for at least the past two years. As Perdue explains:
Across our company, 95% of our chickens never receive any human antibiotics, and the remainder may receive them only for a few days when prescribed by a veterinarian. This very limited use of antibiotics is more restrictive than the new Federal Drug Administration Guidelines announced December 2013 and aligns with efforts to reduce the overall use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and the potential spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Farmer Holly Budd from Southern Maryland supports the bill and says, "This practical and common-sense legislation shows the way that we all should be raising our animals in Maryland. I take care to only use antibiotics to treat sick animals for my family, for my customers, and for my community."
Customers are demanding better antibiotics practices
In the absence of strong antibiotics policies at the state or federal level to date, the restaurant industry is increasingly taking matters into their own hands and responding to consumer demand for meat raised without the routine use of these drugs. As a result, companies from Panera Bread to McDonald's and Subway are demanding the same from their suppliers.
There is a growing market for animals raised this way, and Maryland should help its farmers to lead the pack, not fall behind it.
Polling shows that Marylanders support ending the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals. The medical community is clear that this is critical if we are to stop the dangerous spread of drug-resistant superbugs nationwide. And the agricultural community is already demonstrating it can be done. By passing the legislation introduced today, Maryland can help lead the way in keeping our life-saving miracle drugs working when we need them.
[Updated Feb. 10 to add link to the bill text.]