If you weren’t already alarmed by the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, consider this: Scientists recently went looking for one type of superbug lurking among livestock only to find another superbug they weren’t expecting.
“We weren’t expecting this, and we were quite surprised,” Wittum told Maryn McKenna at Fern’s AG Insider. “We had predicted that the common CREs in U.S. health care would be the ones we would first start to see in animals, but this is a really unusual one”—not least because carbapenems aren’t even used in livestock. Wittum and his team had gone searching for bacteria that are resistant to another class of antibiotic, cephalosporins, which are commonly used in pigs.
Meaning what? Well, somehow potentially disease-causing bacteria resistant to an antibiotic of last resort for humans ended up on a pig farm where the animals never received that antibiotic. More research is necessary to determine how it might have happened, but it suggests a worrisome new wrinkle in the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs: People (e.g., farmworkers) could be transporting strains of bacteria to factory farms. There, the bacteria can grow into superbugs, as the strains are exposed to a plethora of antibiotics, which they develop an ever stronger resistance against.
Indeed, despite years of increasingly dire warnings from medical experts and public health advocates, some 70 to 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States aren’t used to treat sick people or even sick animals. Rather, they are given to otherwise healthy livestock to promote growth and prevent illness—the sort of illness that’s inevitable on your average overcrowded factory farm. The Food and Drug Administration has been ridiculously slow to address the problem and, to date, hasn’t taken any serious action that would stem the tide of antibiotic abuse on factory farms. On the international front, more than 190 nations signed on to a United Nations declaration in September promising to take action to address the mounting crisis of antibiotic resistance. But the declaration is nonbinding and doesn’t set any firm targets for reining in the overuse of these lifesaving drugs that are rapidly losing their potential to, well, save lives.
As David Wallinga, a physician and senior health officer at the Natural Resources Defense Council, put it to Fern’s Ag Insider, “The pattern we see with enormous antibiotic use in livestock, including pigs, is: ‘Oh, that’s not a problem.’ And then the next stage is, ‘Well, it’s a hypothetical that’s a problem.’ And then, ‘Well, it might be a problem in the United States, but people aren’t dying yet.’ And the last stage is, ‘Well, not very many people are dying.’ As a public-health person, I don’t want to see us get to that last stage.”