No More Antibiotics In Livestock?

Hey everybody!  I just learned something really exciting!  The FDA is proposing to ban routine use of antibiotics in livestock unless they are needed to treat infection in the animals.

Apparently, the use of certain antibiotics as additives in livestock feed promotes the growth of the animals.  I wasn’t able to find a good explanation of this.  I suspect that it’s because modern agribusiness practices encourage the spread of infection among farmed livestock and the antibiotics keep this more under control.  Chronically infected, sick, overcrowded animals aren’t going to grow as well as animals that aren’t chronically infected and sick (regardless of overcrowding).

The FDA is proposing a voluntary phase-out of antibiotics that are also used in humans, to require them to be used only under the directive of a veterinarian.  In other words, they won’t be used routinely to promote the animals’ growth, but only to treat infection in sick animals.

Why is this important?  Constant pressure on disease-causing bacteria by overuse of antibiotics encourages the development of resistance.  This is seen in animals and in people as well.  Recent outbreaks of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), VRE (vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus), and Clostridium difficile highlight the importance of MINIMIZING unnecessary use of antibiotics.

I want to explain a little about C. difficile.  There is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about this “infection.”  C. diff can be found in almost everyone’s intestine.  It is a common “weed” in the intestinal garden, one of many species of bacteria that coexist and keep each other in check through competition for nutrition in the normal intestine.  Now suppose these bacteria’s happy host (i.e. YOU) develops a nasty sinus infection.  Your doctor wants to make you feel better and prescribes an antibiotic.  This antibiotic kills many of the bacteria in the intestine (and incidentally often results in the side effect of diarrhea).   C. diff, however, is NOT killed by the antibiotic.  You have taken your garden and killed almost all of the flowers and other plants.  This nasty weed now has free rein and can take over the garden plot.  C. diff causes a form of diarrhea that can be fatal.  It is becoming more and more common in hospitals and nursing homes, places where patients are frequently treated with high-powered antibiotics.

Someone with a serious pneumonia or life-threatening infection, of course, may have to take the risk of an antibiotic.  However we see so many patients who come in with a day or two of cold symptoms insisting on a prescription for an antibiotic.  They don’t want it to get worse.  They’re going on vacation and want to be better before they leave.  They don’t want to be sick on Christmas.  If your illness is caused by a virus, an antibiotic will NOT help and can cause other problems and side effects.

So let’s get back to the livestock, OK?  Why is it important not to use antibiotics unnecessarily in animals?  We share many of the same germs with animals.  Overexposure to antibiotics can create resistant bacteria.  Also, the antibiotics used in the livestock often are still present in the meat, milk and other products that are then consumed by people.  The amounts are much lower of course than those used to treat infections, but more constant.  There really isn’t much data about how MUCH antibiotic exposure is required to create resistant infections.

I’m happy that the FDA says that farmers aren’t going to be able to overuse antibiotics in livestock.  I hope that we will see a drop in resistant infections over the next few years.

QUESTION:  Do you think antibiotic use in livestock hurts or helps people?

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