Leading doctors and public health experts call on UN to act on antibiotics

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Michael Lovito         Patrice Snow
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      Leading doctors and public health experts call on UN to act on antibiotics

New York – The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) delivered a letter signed by leaders in the American public health and medical communities to the U.S. Delegation of the United Nations today urging them to push for international action to stop the misuse of antibiotics on livestock and poultry. The letter is in anticipation of the UN General Assembly’s first ever high-level meeting on antibiotic resistance this week.

“Global leaders have failed to act in a unified way to protect life-saving antibiotics. Now we find ourselves at the cliff’s edge—just a step away from a post-antibiotic era. It’s time to act,” said Dr. Lance Price, Director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University. “We need a global agreement to protect medically important antibiotics from overuse and misuse in industrial farming and in human medicine.”

The UN doesn’t convene high level meetings on health issues lightly, having done so only a handful of times in the past. Antibiotic resistance warrants the spotlight. A study conducted for the United Kingdom estimates that unless immediate action is taken, drug resistant infections could kill more people worldwide per year by 2050 than cancer does today.

Although antibiotics are sometimes misused in human medicine, the widespread overuse of the drugs on livestock and poultry has also been connected to the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. 

In the United States, approximately 70% of medically important antibiotics sold are for use on livestock and poultry. The drugs are often given routinely to animals that aren’t sick to promote growth and prevent disease common in unsanitary conditions. This overuse can encourage the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which can spread to people through contaminated food, human to animal contact, air born dust and water runoff.

“These miracles of modern medicine are slipping through our fingers,” said Patrice Snow, U.S. PIRG Antibiotics Program Director. “In order to preserve antibiotics for the future, we need to stop overusing and misusing them on healthy farm animals.”

Although government action has been slow in the U.S., the marketplace is beginning to move away from routine antibiotics use. Major restaurants like McDonald’s, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Taco Bell, and most recently Wendy’s have made various commitments to stop serving meat raised on routine antibiotics in their U.S. operations.

This progress in the American marketplace is substantial, but antibiotic resistance is a global problem that requires a global commitment to coordinated action.

“Drug resistant bacteria don’t read market signals—but policymakers should,” said Dr. Anthony D. So, Director of the Strategic Policy Program for ReAct-Action on Antibiotic Resistance at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The choice for countries is clear: pay now or pay more later to stop the rising tide of antibiotic use in our food system.” 

The U.S. delegation should listen to the voices of the American medical community, and push for a strong resolution at the United Nations high-level meeting that lays the groundwork for phasing out the routine, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on healthy farm animals at the global level.

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U.S. PIRG is a consumer group that stands up to powerful interests whenever they threaten our health and safety, our financial security, or our right to fully participate in our democratic society. For decades, we’ve stood up for consumers, countering the influence of big banks, insurers, chemical manufacturers and other powerful special interests.