U.S. government, health groups sound alarm on antibiotics

Reuters / The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a coalition of 25 health-care organizations are joining forces to fight the overuse of antibiotics in people and livestock in a bid to curb the rise of drug-resistant “super bugs.”

Without action, patients could soon face a time when antibiotics are powerless to treat many of the most common infections, said CDC experts and the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, a public health research group.

“How we use and protect these precious drugs must fundamentally change,” Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director for health-care-associated infection prevention programs at the CDC, said in a conference call with reporters on Nov. 13.

Dr. David Relman, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, which is part of the effort, said doctors are already seeing patients with bacterial infections resistant to “every antibiotic we have left.”

“It will take all of us — consumers, health-care providers, researchers, policy-makers, industry, and others — to tackle this problem,” he said.

A statement signed by organizations ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics to Consumer’s Union, an advocacy group, stressed the need for policies that conserve and protect antibiotics, ensuring that patients get the right antibiotics at the right time, and for the right amount of time.

They also called for curbs on the use of antibiotics in food animals, recommending their use by veterinarians only when they are needed to ensure the animal’s health.

Food producers do not have to consult veterinarians because common antibiotics have long been available to farmers without a prescription.

The position on antibiotic use in food animals echoes efforts by U.S. regulators urging food producers to stop using antibiotics in livestock for non-medical uses.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April said antibiotics should only be used under the supervision of a veterinarian to prevent or treat illnesses in animals, and has asked companies to start phasing out their use for purposes such as promoting growth, a process that could take three years.

The move to limit the drugs could affect large meat producers like Tyson Foods Inc., Cargill Inc. and Hormel Foods Corp.

Gail Hansen, a public health veterinarian for the Pew Charitable Trusts, said the amount of antibiotics used in the United States for food animals far outstrips the amount used for people.

Some 30 million pounds of antibiotics are sold each year for animals, compared to seven million pounds for humans, she said.

Srinivasan of the CDC said the problem cannot be addressed simply by curbing antibiotic use in food animals.

“This is a joint problem,” he said.

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