Researchers from The Ohio State University published a report today about the discovery of E-coli bacteria resistant to the antibiotic carbapenem in an Ohio swine facility. Uh oh. According to the American Society of Microbiology, in whose journal the research was published, carbapenems are “one of the most important classes of antibiotics used in humans.” They are the sturdy linebacker that stops the running back from getting in the end zone when the other teammates fail to do the job.
The E-coli bacteria contains a gene that allows it to resist this crucial antibiotic, which raises a big red flag for public health because if passed to people, it can cause difficult-to-treat and potentially life-threatening illness. This new finding should put a renewed and ever brighter spotlight on the rampant misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and its effects on human health.
Although it’s not entirely clear how the carbapenem resistant bacteria came about in the swine facility, given that these drugs are not used in animal agriculture, it is crystal clear that the overuse of other antibiotics on livestock is a problem. Antibiotics similar in makeup to carbapenems are often used on livestock, and the study suggests that the overuse of these other drugs may help to amplify carbapenem resistance.
The overuse of antibiotics on livestock and poultry isn’t the only piece of the puzzle, although it is in many ways the most egregious. A recent study showed that roughly a third of antibiotic prescriptions coming out of doctors’ offices are not necessary. Drugs are often prescribed to treat viruses, which antibiotics do nothing for, or the prescriptions are written after heavy insistence from patients themselves.
I check my news feed every day with a twinge of fear to see what dangerous new resistant bacteria has been discovered. It seems that more and more often, my fears are written in the headlines, including today.
Despite the magnitude of the problem of antibiotic resistance in turning common infections into life-threatening illnesses, and backtracking on decades of medical advancements, there is a relatively simple solution. We need to stop the misuse/overuse of antibiotics in both agricultural and healthcare settings.
President Obama’s executive order to combat antibiotic resistance was a good step forward, especially through mandating antimicrobial stewardship programs in hospitals. More needs to be done. On the agricultural side, we need targeted reductions in antibiotic use; a system to track how, where, and why antibiotics are being used; and a ban on the use of antibiotics in animals that do not have diagnosed illness.
The discovery of carbapenem resistant bacteria in the swine facility makes it even clearer that Congress and the Food and Drug Administration need to ban the routine use of antibiotics on animals that aren’t sick. The costs far outweigh any purported benefit.
Director, Public Health Campaigns, PIRG
Matt directs PIRG's public health campaigns, including campaigns to address the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections by stopping the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and to reverse the alarming increase in teen nicotine addiction by banning tobacco products marketed to kids. Matt is an avid outdoorsman and loves to play the drums and harmonica.