Viewpoints: Legislature must protect public health on antibiotics and livestock

07/18/2014 12:00 AM

07/17/2014 9:57 PM

The story of medicine is one of progress and hope. Today, diseases and illnesses are better understood, managed and treated than at any point in human history.

That is why it’s so disturbing that medicine, in one critical way, is getting ever closer to taking a giant step backward. Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, and the manner in which livestock and poultry are raised on many large factory farms is part of the problem.

California should be at the forefront of protecting public health by ending the use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick. We applaud the Legislature for tackling the issue this year, but we’re troubled that it is pushing through a bill that will bring little change instead of a measure that would have a real impact.

In its recent report on antimicrobial resistance, the World Health Organization warned that a “post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries can kill – far from being an apocalyptic fantasy – is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

The WHO report is just the latest in a string of increasingly dire warnings from the medical community, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Public Health Association. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said: “If we are not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era, and for some patients and some microbes, we are already there.”

What does such a post-antibiotic future look like? According to the CDC, there are already more than 2 million Americans sickened every year with antibiotic-resistant infections, with at least 23,000 dying as a result. Many public health experts say if we don’t act, the problem will only get worse.

Meningitis and bacterial pneumonia may once again become untreatable. Simple infections from cuts and scrapes may lead to amputations or death. The risks from chemotherapy and radiation therapy to fight cancer may prove too great because both weaken the immune system and make patients susceptible to infections. The list goes on.

It was in 1928 that Alexander Fleming stumbled upon the curative effects of penicillin. It didn’t take long for researchers and the medical community to understand that resistance naturally follows the introduction of an antibiotic. It’s for this reason that doctors are careful about prescribing an antibiotic.

However, such caution does not always exist on large livestock and poultry operations. When factory farms discovered that their animals would grow fatter, faster when receiving antibiotics, many began putting antibiotics into the daily feed of their healthy animals. Antibiotics are given to these animals to prevent future illnesses rather than just to treat current illnesses.

The result of this near-constant exposure to antibiotics? Bacteria are quickly mutating to form resistance. The more that bacteria are exposed to a drug, the faster this happens. And once resistance develops, the problem spreads rapidly, as bacteria reproduce in minutes and swap resistant genes with each other.

To prevent the post-antibiotic future from becoming a reality, we need to stop the spread of superbugs – and that means ending the misuse and overuse of antibiotics. Certainly we can use the power of the purse, choosing to only buy antibiotic-free meat, for example.

But we need more action to address and solve this problem. One good step would be Assembly Bill 1437, by Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, which would have banned the sale of meat in California if antibiotics were used for a purpose other than treating illness. However, the bill did not get out of its first policy committee.

Instead, currently on the table is Senate Bill 835, by Sen. Jerry Hill, that would simply put into law weaker Food and Drug Administration guidelines that were announced last year. Yes, SB 835 would ban the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, but it would leave open a glaring loophole. Many of the antibiotics used for growth promotion are also used for disease prevention, making the bill simply a label change for the pharmaceutical industry.

If the Legislature is serious about tackling this problem, it must pass a bill that limits the use of the antibiotics to only treating sick animals. Anything short of that fails to be a solution to this public health threat.

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