The American Antibiotics Resistance Crisis: Experts in Agriculture and Health Talk Solutions

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FROM THE URBAN HEALTH MATTERS BLOG BY AMANDA LI

Academy hosts forum on taming a growing, national health threat

With resistance to antibiotics prevalent in every country across the globe and more than 2 million people infected annually with antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the United States alone, antibiotic resistance is posing significant risks to human health. In fact, the World Health Organization classifies it as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.

 What is causing this major health challenge?

Most people assume that antibiotic resistance develops because of the misuse of antibiotics in the treatment of infections. That’s correct, but it’s just a small part of the story. Approximately 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are deployed in food production. 

Antibiotics are regularly used by industrial farms in the raising of livestock, fish and poultry. By feeding antibiotics to animals, farms can stimulate quicker growth as well as compensate for exposing animals to unclean environments. Although economically beneficial for the farms, this practice contributes greatly to the antibiotic resistance in humans who consume poultry, meat and fish.

The dangers of antibiotic resistance are real and all around us, but so are the increasing efforts to fight it. In recognition of the health risks that come with using antibiotics in agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has implemented a new policy that tightens the rules for antibiotic use in livestock. This policy prohibits the use of medically important antibiotics to speed the growth of healthy animals.

The FDA now requires antibiotic prescriptions given to animals that will be used for food to be administered only with a veterinarian’s approval and supervision. Additionally, the New York State Department of Health has created the NYS Antimicrobial Resistance Prevention and Control Task Force, a collaboration across local, state and federal agencies. The aim of this task force is to develop recommendations and statewide strategies to fight antimicrobial resistance within New York State. The Academy works to inform policy makers about the need and benefits of policy changes related to this issue through its work with organizations such as Health Care Without Harm and its Designing a Strong and Healthy New York (DASH-NY) initiative.

Stopping increasing antibiotic resistance means working with communities, physicians, farmers, the food industry and policy makers to find new ways to address this growing health threat. That’s why leading activists and experts came together at the Academy, on February 7, 2017, to explain the potential scope of the epidemic and make recommendations about how to contain it.

Panel moderator Kimberly Libman, PhD, MPH, the Director for Prevention and Community Development at the New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for Health Policy and Programs, started off the panel by stunning the audience with a video that demonstrates bacteria’s ability to become resistant to antibiotics at extremely high doses in a mere 11 days. After following the video with the shocking idea that antibiotic resistance is currently projected to become a top killer worldwide—causing even more deaths than cancer—by 2050, Libman and her co-panelists talked solutions.

Jennifer Obadia, PhD, the Eastern U.S. Regional Director for Health Care Without Harm; Ken Jaffe, MD, a former family physician who raises grass-fed beef in the Catskill region of New York; and Saul Hymes, MD, who is a physician at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital and serves on the New York State Task Force on Antimicrobial Resistance, suggested a three-point approach. First, they reminded us that as patients, each of us can play a role by questioning our doctors about antibiotic prescriptions for ourselves and our children to make sure they are absolutely necessary. Antibiotics do not kill viruses, for example, though they are often prescribed for the common cold.

Addressing other farmers, Jaffe pointed out that farmers should never use antibiotics to make animals grow larger. They should only be given when an animal is sick. Lastly, the panelists made a public call to action for all institutions that buy and serve food to the public—hospitals, schools, cultural organizations and others—to only purchase meat, poultry and fish that has been raised without antibiotic growth therapy. Advocating for this approach to food procurement is also a key part DASH-NY’s work. If followed, the panelist’s recommendations would have a tremendous impact on protecting the public’s health in urban and rural communities. 

Originally posted on 1/25/2017 and updated on 2/15/2017 to reflect the panel’s recommendations. 

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