What Happens When Antibiotics Stop Working?
By Sarah Borron
Imagine you are a patient at in a hospital. You come to the hospital for treatment, for surgery, to get better. While you’re there, you pick up a bacterial infection. It’s common – over a million patients acquire infections while in the hospital every year. But what’s not normal this time is that there’s no treatment. Your infection won’t respond to any kind of antibiotic. Now, instead of healing from the condition that brought you to the hospital, your life could be in danger. It is the stuff of nightmares.
This horrifying scenario recently played out at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center here in the D.C. area, as detailed by the Washington Post last week. Despite numerous precautions, a deadly superbug spread from one patient to 17 over the course of several months. Six people died before the outbreak was finally over. Meanwhile, doctors tested every patient and added hyper-vigilant safety precautions, and hospital administrators ordered parts of rooms walled off and vaporized with chemicals. Hospital staff were confounded as the outbreak persisted in the face of their unprecedented efforts. Nationally, six percent of hospitals are battling such outbreaks.
What the Washington Post article neglected to mention was how those scary superbugs developed in the first place. Germs naturally gain resistance to drugs over time. Misuse of antibiotics hastens the process. Medical professionals agree that antibiotics should be used “judiciously,” or only as needed to treat illnesses, so the drugs can be effective for as long as possible.
Over 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in agriculture, not human medicine. For decades, livestock producers have used antibiotics in exactly the way doctors do not recommend: in low doses, for long periods of time, in whole herds and flocks of healthy animals. This practice is known as “subtherapeutic use” because the drugs are given for reasons other than treatment of disease. Agriculture must also change its practices to prolong the usefulness of antibiotics.
As I mentioned in my April blog, the FDA should use every tool in its regulatory toolbox to reduce subtherapeutic uses of antibiotics in livestock. But, at present, the FDA can’t even require that livestock have a prescription from a veterinarian before receiving antibiotics, though FDA’s working on “voluntary guidance.” To wipe out subtherapeutic use once and for all, we’re urging Congress to make a ban on subtherapeutic use of antibiotics law by passing the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA).
The rise of antibiotic-resistant super bugs poses one of the most threatening public health problems we’ve faced in decades, so Food & Water Watch and our allies are following the issue closely. Watch for our in-depth report on antibiotic resistance coming out this September.