The Boston Globe
August 8, 2005

THE GREAT, life-saving medical advance of the 20th century was the discovery of antibiotics. Now, in the 21st century, the effectiveness of these miracle drugs is being undercut by their misuse in both people and animals.

The fight to end overuse of the drugs in animals had two recent victories: a decision last month by the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of two antibiotics in poultry and an announcement Tuesday by a major food services company, Compass Group, that its pork suppliers would no longer use antibiotics to promote growth. As welcome as these steps are, the best route to stop agricultural misuse of these drugs is legislation pending in Congress.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are put in the feed of poultry and livestock. This is done not to treat infections but to speed growth or prevent disease in the unhygienic quarters of the animals. One effect of this indiscriminate use of the drugs is to breed strains of bacteria that are resistant to them, eroding their ability to cure infections in humans. The risk is greatest with germs that pass from animals to humans, such as salmonella.

In 2000, the FDA started the process of banning two antibiotics in poultry farming after a study showed that 17.6 percent of humans who were treated with these drugs in 1999 had resistant bacteria strains. In 1995, when the drugs were first approved for use in poultry, just 1 percent of humans had resistant strains. One maker of poultry antibiotics, Abbott Laboratories, quickly agreed to withdraw its drug from the market, but the Bayer Corp. chose to contest the ban. Because of the FDA’s cumbersome procedures, it has taken five years to get a final ruling against Bayer.

That timeline is an argument in favor of a Senate bill, whose sponsors include Senators Olympia Snowe of Maine and Edward Kennedy, that would ban the nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in animals. The ban would go into effect two years after enactment of the law, with provisions for financial aid to farmers. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that the ban would raise a person’s annual meat bill by $5 to $10. The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association all favor an end to this use of antibiotics.

Resistant bacteria are also the result of doctors prescribing the drugs for conditions not caused by bacteria and of patients prematurely breaking off a course of antibiotic doses. Efforts to curb resistance have to address these as well. But banning the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animals is a sensible step to make sure medicine doesn’t lose these potent weapons against infection.

Source: Globe Newspaper Company.

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