PBS Spotlight Reaffirms The Need To Stop Misusing Life-Saving Antibiotics

Matthew Wellington, U.S. PIRG Antibiotics Program Director

Over the last two weeks, millions of people got a peak under the hood of the antibiotic resistance crisis, courtesy of PBS Newshour’s reporting. Here, here, and here are three excellent Newshour segments.

The widespread overuse of antibiotics is pushing us toward a world in which common infections can once again kill and is unnecessarily elevating the risk of cancer treatments, routine surgeries, and even child birth.

Dr. Shira Doron of Tufts Medical Center says her team is “seeing patients with infections that cannot be treated by any antibiotic on the market.” She adds, “We’re having to tell patients, we don’t have anything for you.” Sobering testimonies like these should send a clear message—we need to act now to preserve these life-saving medicines.

The foundational problem driving antibiotic resistance is the overuse and misuse of the drugs. As shown in the PBS series, bacteria are smart. They evolve rapidly to thwart our arsenal of antibiotics. We shouldn’t do them any favors by creating the ideal conditions for resistant bacteria to flourish. Yet, that’s what we’re doing in our food system on a grand scale.

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Approximately 70% of medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are for use on livestock and poultry. Rather than reserving the drugs to treat sick animals, in many cases industrial farms blanket dose their flock or herd to prevent disease that can be brought on by the unsanitary, crowded living conditions.

 The Chief Financial Officer of a notorious holdout in the chicken industry, Sanderson Farms, defends this practice by saying, “If I can prevent illness in the flock, we’re going to do that.” Of course keeping animals healthy is important, but rather than pumping them full of precious medicines to compensate for a system that is “engineered” to make them sick, in the words of Dr. Lance Price from George Washington University, we should change the system itself.

It’s the 21st century—we have the know-how and the technology to raise enough food in a way that doesn’t put our health and life-saving medicines at risk.  And we need to put it into practice quickly, because the routine use of antibiotics on otherwise healthy animals breeds drug resistant bacteria that can spread from the farm into our communities.

Policy makers in California and Maryland have gone beyond weak federal half-measures to meaningfully address antibiotic overuse on farms. Legislation passed in both states has a simple guiding principle—antibiotics should be used to treat sick animals. The use of these life-saving medicines to compensate for bad living conditions is unacceptable.

Moving forward, more states should step up to keep antibiotics effective. Nothing less than our health is at stake.