‘Action Plan’ to Fight Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs Doesn’t Take the Right Action
The “action plan” released in draft form Thursday by President Obama’s blue-ribbon council to combat the growing scourge of antibiotic-resistant superbugs brings any number of absurd scenarios to mind: the dopey friend who rails about the dangers of global warming while clocking 80 down the interstate in his hulking SUV; the wacky sister who laments the abuses of the livestock industry as she scans a restaurant menu, only to order a double cheeseburger.
As a strategy to get a couple laughs in a sitcom, this sort of blind-eye cluelessness is great. But when it comes to fending off what may go down as one of the most significant—and avoidable—public health crises of our time, not so much. That’s because the “action plan” from the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria essentially ignores the elephant in the living room—make that the one-ton cow.
Despite widespread agreement among public health advocates that the rampant overuse of antibiotics in the livestock industry is the primary culprit behind the rising tide of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, the council’s plan contains virtually nothing to effectively address the issue.
Indeed, 70 percent of medically important antibiotics used in America don’t go to treat sick people, or even to treat sick animals. They’re used by the livestock industry to promote growth and ward off illness in what are often overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.
Daily doses of antibiotics mixed into the feed of farm animals has been indispensable to the rise of factory farms—and to the cultivation of a number of scary strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can move from animals to people. Adding to the alarm earlier this year were reports that, quicker than you can say “lickety split,” certain bacteria were passing along a gene capable of conferring resistance to the antibiotic colistin—long considered an antibiotic of last resort in modern medicine. Bacteria with the gene have now been identified in more than 20 countries, in farm animals as well as in people.
No less authority than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been warning about the danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria for years. The CDC estimates that 2 million Americans suffer antibiotic-resistant infections each year, resulting in 23,000 deaths.
When President Obama created the advisory council in late 2014 to tackle the challenge of antibiotic resistance, it was hailed as an important, if long overdue, step in the right direction. Yet the draft action plan on which the council is voting this week has left public health advocates underwhelmed, to say the least. “Disappointing” and “fundamentally flawed” is how David Wallinga at the Natural Resources Defense Council describes the council’s work in a recent blog post.
As Wallinga and others fighting for concrete action to rein in antibiotic abuse on factory farms point out, the council essentially continues to give the livestock industry a free pass to use medically important antibiotics willy-nilly. There are no targets—none—to reduce agricultural use of antibiotics, even as the council presses for reductions in the amount of antibiotics prescribed to people.
Moreover, the president’s handpicked team of experts seems all too willing to accept the Food and Drug Administration’s pie-in-the-sky assertions that its program to encourage drug makers to voluntarily stop selling any number of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in animals is actually working. It’s been more than two years since the FDA launched its program. In that time, how many antibiotics have drug companies taken off the market for growth promotion in animals? Just one.
And even if the FDA were to succeed in stamping out the use of antibiotics simply to bulk up cows and pigs, the livestock industry could still continue to ply animals with antibiotics: Farmers could say they were using the antibiotics not for growth promotion but to prevent disease.
“The Netherlands phased out the use of antibiotics for growth-promotion in 2006, but antibiotic use continued to rise even after the ban took effect,” Wallinga writes by way of example. “Only after the government and industry launched a new, much more aggressive effort to reduce use of ALL antibiotics in feed—by setting a reduction target and banning use for disease prevention—did the country see significant reduction in antibiotic use.”
How much? Almost 50 percent.
Unfortunately, when it comes to curbing the epidemic of antibiotic abuse on factory farms, the U.S. hasn’t even gotten to square one. More like square zero.