Farm animal antibiotic adds problematic human resistance

By on September 6th, 2012

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Concerns for antibiotic consumption stretch far beyond taking antibiotics for illnesses — it could be inside the food they eat.

For the first time, farmers and ranchers are required to have a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics on farm animals, according to The New York Times. The overuse of antibiotics leads to an estimated tens of thousands of human deaths per year.

Glenn Morris, director of the emerging pathogens institute at the University of Florida, said many antibiotics are used in agriculture as a growth enhancer, not as a cure for illnesses.

The use of antibiotics lowers costs for farmers, because the cost of the antibiotics is outweighed by the sequential growth in the animal, he said. Consequently, he continued, it could hurt consumers as they could develop resistance to antibiotics and cannot be cured by usual antibiotic methods, but clear amounts of data are not widely available.

“It makes me feel very uneasy because one would think that these are the types of data that would be readily available and one could very quickly see where the major uses of antibiotics are, focus on those and try to reduce them,” Morris said.

He said experts estimate up to 70 percent of antibiotics produced are used on animals, but the lack of exact numbers and data on the subject is disconcerting. The New York Times said 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States goes to chicken, pigs, cows and other animals people eat, but farmers are not required to report how they use the drugs in terms of quantity and on what animals.

In Morris’ experience, he has seen some people who have been unable to receive regular antibiotic treatment because of resistance to certain antibiotics.

“Antibiotic resistance requires two things: the presence of genes that encode for antibiotic resistance and but it also requires selective pressure,” Morris said.

In this case, the selective pressure is the exposure to antibiotic-infused food that is consumed. Bacteria have the pressure to stay alive within the body and find the need to develop a resistance to the antibiotics killing them, Morris said.

He said one of the major problems in medicine today is the rapid growth of resistance to antibiotics. However, with less consumption of antibiotic-enhanced farm animals this may be able to be lessened in the future.

Growth in creating different antibiotics have not developed, he said. Subsequently, the same antibiotics are utilized to cure illnesses and they become less potent with each use.

Morris said Europe has opted to ban the use of antibiotics in agriculture and hospitals and doctors’ offices in the United States are also making an effort to prescribe and use fewer antibiotics on patients.

“One wants to try to use as few antibiotics as possible to reduce the risk that antibiotic strains will emerge,” he said.

Kelsey Meany edited this story online.

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