Veterinary support essential to ending antibiotic overuse

June 17, 2016

two pigs

You may have heard recent disturbing news that the second case of Colistin-resistant infection has been found for the first time in the United States. This news comes just a few short months after the first case was reported by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, involving a patient in Pennsylvania. Researchers at the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services have also reported finding Colistin-resistant E. coli in a pig intestinal sample. Colistin is a last resort drug for treating superbug (i.e., multi-drug resistant) infections. These discoveries signal we are that much closer to what has been referred to as a ‘post-antibiotic era,’ where people will die from once treatable infections.

It was only seven months ago that scientists in China first reported Colistin-resistant bacteria in pigs and humans. Colistin is widely used in animal agriculture in China and the emergence of resistance is believed to be associated with these uses. The Colistin-resistant gene, mcr-1, has since also been found in bacteria in Europe, Africa, South America, Canada, and now the U.S.

At least 70% of the medically important antibiotics sold each year in this country are for use in animal agriculture, mostly for non-therapeutic purposes -- not when animals get sick, but in order to promote faster growth and to compensate for poor management practices. Scientists around the world have warned that excessive use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is contributing to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. In 2013, CDC reported that more than 2 million people each year in the U.S. get infected with drug-resistant bacteria, and that there are at least 23,000 associated deaths. The CDC recently stated, “Resistant bacteria in food-producing animals are of particular concern. Food animals serve as a reservoir of resistant pathogens and resistance mechanisms that can directly or indirectly result in antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.”

With the apparent now worldwide distribution of the mcr-1 gene, it is only a matter of time before one of a number of multi-drug-resistant bacterial strains also acquires resistance to Colistin. At that point, there will be no antibiotic options to treat an infection. This is a truly nightmarish scenario.

These problems are contributing to antibiotic overuse:

  1. High volume of antibiotic use in farm animals
    In 2014, more than 20 million pounds of medically important antimicrobials were sold for use in food-producing animals in the U.S. – a 23% increase since 2009. (Source)
  2. Looming health challenge posed by non-therapeutic antibiotic use on factory farms
    The volume of scientific research suggesting that profligate animal agriculture use of these drugs threatens to ruin the efficacy of antibiotics for treating sick animals and people continues to grow. A detailed review of the scientific literature on this issue is available from the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of non-profit organizations concerned about antibiotics overuse, has also compiled a list of scientific articles on antibiotic resistance. (Source)
  3. Inadequate government action to regulate antibiotic overuse
    A federal report released in 2011 found significant holes in the FDA’s voluntary guideline system for antibiotic use on farms. The report also found that the federal government has been collecting insufficient data to address the antibiotic overuse issue. (Source)

Veterinarians Should Take Action

The veterinary community should play a positive and proactive role in this animal health and welfare issue. The majority of antibiotics are routinely fed to farm animals in their feed or water for non-therapeutic purposes, rather than to treat sick animals.

The human medical community, led by the American Medical Association, has joined with scientists, environmentalists and animal welfare organizations (more than 450 groups), in cautioning against this misuse of antibiotics. As leaders in the field of animal health and welfare, veterinary professionals need to step up on this issue now.

How You Can Help

Federal legislation to phase out the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals and protect the effectiveness of these drugs for treating sick animals and people has been introduced in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (or PAMTA, H.R. 1552 in the House) and the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (or PARA, S. 621 in the Senate), would make it more efficient for the FDA to withdraw approval for non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics that they find to be creating a public health problem. Although the FDA has recognized concerns about antibiotic overuse in livestock, its current procedures are too cumbersome for timely action.

As a veterinary professional, you can help ensure passage of this legislation as part of the efforts to rein in antibiotic overuse. Here are two ways to help:

  1. Sign the HSVMA petition
    HSVMA is collecting signatures of veterinary professionals in support of PAMTA. The signatures will be used to show collective veterinary support for the legislation with federal legislators, the media and the public.

    sign now
  2. Ask your federal legislators to co-sponsor PAMTA/PARA
    As many co-sponsors as possible are needed in order to build momentum (previous efforts to pass PAMTA have fallen short due to heavy lobbying from the pharmaceutical and agribusiness industries).

    Here is a short sample statement you can use to ask your legislators to support. It's important to let them know you are a constituent and a veterinary professional:

    As a constituent and veterinary professional, I urge you to co-sponsor the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act/Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (H.R. 1552/S. 621). This important legislation will phase out non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on factory farms. The reckless practice of routinely feeding these vital drugs to animals to keep them from getting sick in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions is contributing to antibiotic resistance that puts sick people and sick animals at risk. Thank you for your support.

    Find the contact information for your two Senators and one Representative in Congress»

Thank you for your help in supporting this crucial legislation to phase out the routine, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. We need to do all we can to protect animals and people from antibiotic overuse and ensure that these precious drugs remain effective for all of us.