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Infections Are Becoming Untreatable

New studies show we’re running out of antibiotics

Scientists at the World Health Organization race to keep up with antibiotic resistance

In case you’ve missed it so far, this is Get Smart About Antibiotics Week. That means the Centers for Disease Control is trying to warn us all about the danger that’s posed by our growing resistance to antibiotics.

It’s not just that we humans are abusing and overusing antibiotics; we’re also being poisoned by them in the food we eat.

Just for starters, The CDC estimates that $1.1 billion is spent each year on unnecessary or useless antibiotic prescriptions for adult upper respiratory infections alone.

And every time anyone takes an antibiotic, it ramps up the possibility of the bacteria mutating into a new strain that will be more resistant to the drugs.

“We are already seeing germs that are stronger than any antibiotics that we have to treat them.”

“The threat of untreatable infections is real,” said Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, who heads up health education programming for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The day when antibiotics don’t work in all situations is upon us. We are already seeing germs that are stronger than any antibiotics that we have to treat them.”

But instead of taking heed, the Food and Drug Administration recently turned down a petition from food safety groups to ban nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in farming.

Europe acts while the U.S. sleeps

The European Union is taking steps to clamp down on antibiotic use.

The world is being driven toward what Marc Sprenger, director of the European CDC, calls the “unthinkable scenario of untreatable infections.”

“The situation is critical,” he said. We need to declare a war against these bacteria.”

A typical example being quoted by the health authorities:

In August 2010, Paolo, 55, a university professor in Rome, was on holiday on the island of Ponza when he fell ill with a fever and shaking chills. He had a urinary tract infection and his brother-in-law, a doctor, prescribed a commonly used antibiotic called ciprofloxacin.

Three days later he was no better and still feverish, but continued with the drugs for a week. He returned to the mainland where he was found to be infected with a strain of E coli resistant to many antibiotics, including ciprofloxacin.

He was prescribed a different antibiotic, which he took for four weeks. He got better, but four days after stopping the treatment, his symptoms returned and he became feverish again.

An infectious disease specialist suggested a third antibiotic, which he took for 21 days.

Two months after he began treatment, that finally cured his infection.

In the United States, two new studies are confirming that drug-resistant staph or MRSA, normally thought of as a problem in hospitals, jails and locker rooms, is showing up on farms, especially factory farms, and being transferred to humans.

In one of those studies, researchers tested 165 samples of turkey, pork, chicken and beef bought at 22 food stores across the state of Iowa. They found staph on 27 samples and MRSA on two. Particularly disturbing was that the MRSA strains, which are still generally resistant to tetracycline, were from animals who had been given routine doses of tetracycline, thus causing a new resistant strain to develop.

Europe clamps down on antibiotic use at farms

Last week, the European Commission announced a 5-year, 12-point plan to reduce resistance, and half of their proposed “concrete actions” address curbing antibiotic use on farms – especially factory farms.

A report from the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming and Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming documents the connections between specific antibiotics used in farming and specific drug-resistant organisms showing up in humans in European countries. The groups call for cutting antibiotic use on EU farms in half by 2015.

Given the FDA’s resistance to taking note of concerns from the CDC, any such proposal in the United States to reduce the routine use of antibiotics in animals raised as food would most likely fall upon deaf ears.