Editorial: Multi-pronged efforts underway to battle antibiotic-resistant superbugs

(February 25, 2019) – The amount of antibiotics sold for use in U.S. livestock fell by some 33 percent in 2017, the most recent year available. That welcome decrease — building on a trend begun in 2016 — is important news on our country’s public health front.

Reducing the level of antibiotics in livestock — and hence in America’s food supply — is a major tool in slowing the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, one of the world’s most dangerous health threats.

In some countries, the drug resistance of these superbugs has begun to undermine the fight against ailments including tuberculosis, HIV, malaria, pneumonia and urinary tract infections and threatens to complicate cancer chemotherapy, the World Health Organization says.

As the superbug threat grows, “the promise of modern medicine itself is at stake,” U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar has said.

The year 2017 was the first in which federal Food and Drug Administration regulations limited livestock antibiotic use in the U.S. to disease treatment only. Producers are no longer allowed to add antibiotics to animal feed to promote weight gain or feeding efficiency. Producers need formal permission from a veterinarian before using any animal antibiotic that has links to human health.

One study cited by WHO found that restricting antibiotic use in food-producing animals reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these animals by up to 39 percent.

Producers and veterinarians have worked hard to carry out this new approach, focusing more on nutritional supplements to meet livestock needs.

Some retailers have begun to pressure producers to shift away from antibiotics. Whole Foods sells only non-antibiotic meat, and since Amazon bought the company last year, some poultry producers have moved to comply with Whole Foods’ standards.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association recently released a statement: “The beef industry promotes the judicious use of antibiotics to keep potential risk of developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria extremely low.”

A number of additional steps are underway or planned in the U.S. to address the superbug threat. The FDA has announced a comprehensive strategy on the issue. The federally managed National Healthcare Safety Network provides a vehicle for tracking resistant bacteria. The Pew Charitable Trusts has established an online platform for sharing antibiotic research data globally.

The federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is working on requirements for hospitals on the issue, even as the number of hospitals with antibiotic stewardship programs continues to grow. Such programs, as described by Nebraska Medicine, focus on “using the right agent, at the correct dose, for the appropriate duration in order to cure or prevent infection, while minimizing toxicity and emergence of resistance.”

Iowa State University is the site of a new Institute for Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Education, in partnership with institutions including the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

All these efforts will be needed if the world is to succeed in the global struggle to safeguard people’s health against this major threat.

Article reposted from Omaha-World Herald