Imagine a world where Neosporin can’t keep your child’s scrapes safe from infection; strep throat has transformed from a nuisance to a fatal disease; pulling your teenager’s wisdom teeth, replacing your mother’s hip, managing your uncle’s chemotherapy, and your Cesarean section are now procedures deemed too risky to perform. This is a world absent of modern medicine, and it is in our future.
The common link in this post-modern medicine scenario is antibiotics, the most transformative and precious medical discovery of the 20th century.
Antibiotics are not like other drugs: the more we use them, the less effective they become, and we’re using them at an irresponsible and horrifying speed.
What we have before us is the most dangerous version of the tragedy of the commons. If you overuse Tylenol, it doesn't change how Tylenol works for me. If you overuse antibiotics, it changes their effectiveness not just for me, but for everyone. The bacteria that didn't die from the first round of antibiotics are now stronger. They become superbugs — antibiotic resistant bacteria that could be fatal. Our current overuse, abuse, and misuse of antibiotics is hastening this resistance. The World Health Organization calls this “a problem so serious that it threatens the achievements of modern medicine.” I couldn’t agree more.
Every year in the United States, two million people get sick from antibiotic resistant infections, and at least 23,000 die. That makes antibiotic resistant infections more deadly than HIV/AIDS and on track to kill more people than cancer by 2050.
Can we guard against the squandering of this precious resource? Can we reverse this trend? Where do we begin?
Most would start with doctors misusing antibiotics by giving inappropriate prescriptions to patients who don’t need them — but that’s only part of the problem. Eighty percent of the antibiotics used in this country are not used on humans; they’re used on livestock.
All across the country, often healthy animals are in stressful, overcrowded, or unsanitary conditions. They are routinely fed antibiotics just to “protect” them from getting sick and make sure they continue to gain weight at unheard of rates. All so they can be raised more cheaply, make it to market more quickly, and net higher profits.
For corporate agriculture, antibiotics have become a quick fix to a dirty problem with dangerous consequences: routine use of antibiotics in these conditions is the perfect recipe for breeding superbugs, and antibiotic resistance has proliferated.
But how does this impact you? The Environmental Working Group found that 39 percent of chicken breasts, wings, and thighs; 55 percent of ground beef; 69 percent of pork chops; and 81 percent of ground turkey in our nation’s grocery stores had antibiotic resistant bacteria in them.
If these superbugs make you sick, you would rightly head to the doctor. Initially, if you had a bacterial infection, you likely were prescribed penicillin. And if penicillin didn't work, the doctor could move on to the next, newer drug.
Well, in an increasing number of cases, there is no longer a “next drug.”
We now have bacterial infections that only a few years ago could be cured and are now not responsive to any known antibiotics.
So why not make more? Along with being difficult to develop, antibiotics are not money-makers, and are at the bottom of drug companies’ priority lists. We aren’t making new antibiotics fast enough. And even if we were, we need to focus on the root of the problem, not just a short-term solution. We must have an all-in approach: from farmers, consumers, doctors, environmental advocates, and yes, our government.
That’s why I’ve been pushing for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, or PAMTA, since 1999. A lot has happened since then — some bad, like the Foster Farms outbreak that infected 634 people; and some good, like McDonald’s, Costco, and other companies beginning to make commitments to using meat that’s been raised without the unnecessary use of antibiotics. There’s positive movement all across the country. Chipotle and Panera have been leading on this issue for quite a long time. School boards have banded together to work on school lunches. But that alone won’t get to the root of the problem.
We need strong, wide-reaching regulation of the agriculture industry, which is what my bill would do. PAMTA would preserve eight classes of medically necessary antibiotics for use in sick humans and animals, which would, along with enforcement mechanisms, dramatically cut back on the amount of antibiotics that are used in this country.
Other countries have successfully reduced antibiotic use without affecting livestock production, Denmark and the Netherlands among them. And the U.S. can do it, too, but we need my bill to pass.
Don’t just read this piece — help solve this problem with me.