When asked recently what worries him the most, Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates without hesitation qualified super-resistant, killer microorganisms as the number one threat to humankind and his chief worry. Without question, a number of viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitical organisms exist today that could wipe out the populations of entire regions and become a pandemic threat to human life around the globe. Gates worries because the control systems we have in place are inadequate, and the organizations entrusted with protecting us against the world’s deadly microbes are underfunded and clumsy about doing their work. (Even the World Health Organization agreed that it moved too slowly to tackle and arrest the latest EBOLA outbreak in West Africa.)
That is a problem for world leaders to address, but our nation’s leaders need to engage more actively in our own homegrown and losing battle against superbugs. Specifically, we must rapidly overhaul our national policies regarding the overuse of antibiotics.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than two million U.S. residents fall ill to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and nearly 23,000 of these victims die each year. Add the explosion of multi-resistant diseases like tuberculosis in other parts of the world and the likelihood of their migration to the U.S. and this crisis looms large.
The overuse and misuse of antibiotics are what causes the organisms they combat to develop resistance, and that’s happening at a hastened pace. In fact, over half of all doses consumed by Americans are inappropriate or unnecessary as prescribed. Overprescribing is a problem, to be sure, but direct-to-human sales of antibiotics makes up only about 20 percent of total sales in the U.S. Eighty percent is sold for consumption by livestock bred for human consumption. Gives a whole new meaning to the stale phrase, “You are what you eat,” doesn’t it?
The first serious legislative attempt to regulate the use of antibiotics in livestock was sponsored by Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) in 2007 with the introduction of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA). If it had been enacted, it would have phased out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed or water and prohibited the use of antibiotics in animals that are not sick or for disease prevention. The bill was killed by legislators who ignored the science and scientists and instead sided with the meat industry whose members want to continue to fatten their herds and flocks by pumping them with antibiotics mainly as a prophylactic against disease. Attempts to gain passage of the bill were defeated again in 2009, 2011 and 2013, each time due to the efforts of the meat lobby.
In the meantime, more costly antibiotic-free meat options are beginning to show up on supermarket shelves, and at least one poultry producer, Tyson Foods, has pledged to eliminate the use of antibiotics in its flocks by the Fall of 2017. That’s all well and good, but time is running out. Congress should pass a PAMTA law now. And while they’re at it, let’s supercharge all efforts to develop new antibiotics.
In the meantime, either reduce or eliminate your personal consumption of meat products. This issue notwithstanding, it’s probably something you ought to do to improve your health status anyway. Also, holler (JLottSr@me.com) if you would like to know where the best vegan restaurants can be found in Southern California. I belong to a network of vegan restaurant reviewers who can recommend a restaurant or two near you.