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Antibiotic Overuse in Animals Is Making Superbugs

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Photo from eutrophication&hypoxia

One of the most quoted lines in the very quotable five-season run of HBO's "The Wire" is spoken by everyone's favorite lone-wolf-stick-up-man-with-a-heart-of-gold Omar Little in the eighth episode of the series. As he's taking his revenge on a drug dealer who'd previously killed his lover, he yells out, "You come at the king, you best not miss." The sentiment is clear: If you're attempting to kill a powerful foe, you get one good chance. Miss it and "the king" will come back stronger than ever and put an end to your puny little uprising.

Bacteria works the same way.

When a person is prescribed antibiotics to "take out" a bacterial infection, they have to make sure all of the bacteria in their system is eradicated. If not, the bacteria awakes from its near-death experience, does a few push-ups, runs up those "Rocky" stairs a bunch of times, punches some meat in the walk-in cooler, and comes back stronger than ever. When that happens, those initial antibiotics used to fight off the infection become worthless. The bacteria has built up a resistance to them. A "superbug" has been created. And then, folks, we're all in a lot of trouble.

This is why the overprescription of antibiotics in humans is so troubling. Every doctor-written prescription is a chance for the drug to be improperly used, whether it's on the patient's end (not taking the full or proper dosage) or the doctor's (not prescribing the correct one in the first place). And each misuse that doesn't kill bacteria, makes it stronger. So by flooding the marketplace with antibiotics, the medical community is only creating more and more antibiotic-resistent superbugs.

However, perhaps the use of antibiotics in humans isn't the big issue that needs to be fretted over. Currently, 80% of antibiotics being consumed in the U.S. are done so by livestock animals on farms. And, as this troubling report by the CDC shows, that's leading to a whole bunch of health problems for us humans:

Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.

As the CDC makes clear in this graph, the overprescription of antibiotics to humans is only half of the problem:


Mother Jones says in response to the graph:

Note the text on the bottom: "These drugs should be only used to treat infections." Compare that to the National Pork Producers Council's much more expansive conception of proper uses of antibiotics in livestock facilities: "treatment of illness, prevention of disease, control of disease, and nutritional efficiency of animals." Dosing animals with daily hits of antibiotics to prevent disease only makes sense, of course, if you're keeping animals on an industrial scale.

Summed up: There's two different schools of thought at work here regarding the use of antibiotics. On the one hand, the medical community believes antibiotics should only be used to treat infections. (Whether or not this belief is actually used in practice is certainly up for debate, but that's a conversation for another time.) On the other hand, the heads of Big Agriculture have an opinion about antibiotic use that can be summed up thusly: "Antibiotics are just like juice! Have a whole bunch! Drink 'em up! Here, take some more!"

And that's making us sick.

Perhaps the best way to make a case that this antibiotic overuse is harmful is to take a snapshot of one particular antibiotic-resistent superbug, which the afore-linked Mother Jones does. Methicilin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (or, MRSA for short) is a superbug that kills 11,285 people on a yearly basis. While the CDC won't directly link these deaths to factory farms, blame should clearly be pointed in that general direction:

In a recent study, a team of researchers led by University of Iowa's Tara Smith found MRSA in 8.5 percent of pigs on conventional farms and no pigs on antibiotic-free farms. Meanwhile, a study just released by the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who live near hog farms or places where hog manure is applied as fertilizer have a much greater risk of contracting MRSA.

Damning stuff.

The worst part of all this news is that we're not dealing with a "keep it out of your own body and you're safe" mentality here. Simply steering your own personal diet away from eating animals treated with antibiotics is not enough. As long as factory farms continue their practice of overprescribing antibiotics, the threat of superbug creation and an ultimate outbreak -- outbreaks that cannot be stopped by prescribing current antibiotics, mind you -- is out there looming, threatening us all.

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