CDC’s recent report on Antibiotic Resistance Threats for 2013 is notable particularly for what it did not say about agriculture’s role in bacterial resistance in humans. There was only a small portion of the report devoted to the topic.
In that section, they state “that antibiotic use in food producing animals CAN harm public health” – this I readily accept. Indeed, anything COULD happen. They go on to say “can” or “could” a half dozen times in the 2 pages of 114 devoted to on-farm antibiotic use. Yes, all these events are possible; however, as a risk analyst, I must ask, “How probable are these events?” You see, risk is a function of both consequence (in this case, resistant illness) and probability. For instance, do you know what common compound can pulmonary toxicity, lung damage, and seizures? Oxygen! Lung damage is the consequence but there is a very low probability of this happening when you’re walking outside. As noted previously the risk assessments published to date show that what “can” happen does not seem to happen very often.
Because of the potential serious consequences of misuse of antibiotics, veterinarians and farmers must be very judicious, avoiding non-essential uses such as growth promotion. But, antibiotics CANNOT be banned from the farm. Just like those human patients who had an infection, antibiotics are needed for animals also. Infectious disease can spread through a herd without any clinical signs, causing unnecessary illness and suffering for my patients, the animals. Also, Denmark already tried to ban antibiotics for disease prevention purposes and saw the amount of treatment antibiotics double and there has been no improvement in public health.
CDC did have much to say about human uses of antibiotics and their appropriateness:
- “SIMPLY USING ANTIBIOTICS CREATES RESISTANCE” (Page 14).
- “Prescribing antibiotics when they are not needed … in doctors’ offices is common” (Page 34).
- “… patients demand [antibiotic] treatment for conditions such as a cold when antibiotics are not needed and will not help” (Page 34).
- “…likewise healthcare providers can be too willing to satisfy a patients expectation for an antibiotic prescription” (Page 34).
- “Up to 50% of all antibiotics prescribed for people are not needed…” (Page 11).
On this last point, the agriculture pharmaceutical industry reported in 2007 only about 13% of food animal antibiotics are for growth promotion (in other words, not needed).
In summary, CDC highlighted the important health threats from antibiotic resistance and the key bacteria of concern, most of which have no connection to food or agriculture. They did rightly note, however, that any antibiotic use including those in agriculture CAN contribute to the problem. Therefore, we all need to be careful.
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