The Wrong Way To Use Antibiotics

Good news from the NYT:

“The Obama administration announced Monday that it would seek to ban many routine uses of antibiotics in farm animals in hopes of reducing the spread of dangerous bacteria in humans.

In written testimony to the House Rules Committee, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of food and drugs, said feeding antibiotics to healthy chickens, pigs and cattle — done to encourage rapid growth — should cease. And Dr. Sharfstein said farmers should no longer be able to use antibiotics in animals without the supervision of a veterinarian.

Both practices lead to the development of bacteria that are immune to many treatments, he said.

The hearing was held to discuss a measure proposed by Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee. It would ban seven classes of antibiotics important to human health from being used in animals, and would restrict other antibiotics to therapeutic and some preventive uses.

The legislation is supported by the American Medical Association, among other groups, but opposed by farm organizations like the National Pork Producers Council. The farm lobby’s opposition makes its passage unlikely, but advocates are hoping to include the measure in the legislation to revamp the health care system.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that as much as 70 percent of antibiotics used in the United States is given to healthy chickens, pigs and cattle to encourage their growth or to prevent illnesses.”

This is really important. Antibiotics make diseases that used to be fatal into minor annoyances. But resistance to antibiotics is rising, and we are not developing new antibiotics to replace the ones bacteria are becoming resistant to. This is in part because spending money to develop new antibiotics doesn’t make sense for pharmaceutical companies.

For one thing, antibiotics are used for short periods of time; the real money is in drugs for chronic conditions that have to be taken indefinitely. For another, if a new antibiotic were developed, it would probably be held in reserve and used only when no other antibiotic worked, so that bacteria would not become resistant to it. This is interference with the market. We are interfering for very good public health reasons: we want to have a drug that bacteria are not resistant to in reserve. But that means that a new antibacterial will not dominate its competitors if it proves to work better than they do.

We need to find a way to promote the development of new antibiotics. In the meantime, however, we should try not to do things that promote antibiotic resistance. Feeding antibiotics to farm animals not to treat diseases, but just to make them grow faster, is one of those things. There are lots of ways of promoting animals’ growth that do not put people’s lives at risk. We should find them.

(Note: this would probably also lead to improvements in the treatment of farm animals. When farm animals are fed antibiotics, you can get away with much more dubious hygiene than you could otherwise. This would also be a very good thing — though I don’t support factory farming in any form.)