A MAJOR public-health danger that languished for too long is at last getting more attention. Antibiotic resistance, the tendency of bacteria to fight back against antibiotics, has been known to exist for decades but was often met with complacency, in part because new and effective antibiotics were discovered frequently. Now there is a growing realization that these miracle drugs could lose their punch.
Recently, Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Burger King and Tim Hortons, announced that by next year it would seek to eliminate from its chicken supply the use of antibiotics important for human medicine, as defined by the World Health Organization, joining other fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Chik-fil-A and KFC. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 11 of the top 15 chains in the United States have now committed to some level of responsible antibiotic use in chicken. The companies are responding to consumer demand, a reassuring sign of change.
Agriculture interests have for decades defended the use of antibiotics in food animals that are not sick, in order to stimulate faster growth on the same amount of feed. Some 70 percent of all medically important antibiotics sold in the United States are given to animals, and that is a major factor driving antibiotic resistance. The Obama administration attempted to stop the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, and data expected this year should offer the first evidence of whether the policy is working.
Antibiotics also have been overused among humans. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that nearly a third of all antibiotics prescribed in outpatient clinics are unnecessary and roughly 30 percent of antibiotics used in hospitals are unnecessary or prescribed incorrectly. Much better antibiotic stewardship is needed: tools and training to help doctors, nurses and others make careful decisions. The influential Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies about 21,000 health-care organizations and programs in the United States, has put into place new standards for antibiotic use , effective this year.
The pipeline of new antibiotics has been running dry for years, and that remains a problem. But a promising experiment is unfolding in the Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator, or CARB-X, which has announced funding for 11 teams to tackle research projects aimed at coming up with new antibiotics and diagnostics for the so-called Gram-negative bacteria that are the highest priority of the CDC and World Health Organization.
All these plans require years of action. In the end, there is no final victory — bacteria and viruses will go on evolving and fighting drugs. But if real efforts are made to restrain overuse for both humans and animals, improve surveillance and diagnostics, and discover new compounds, the great benefits of these miracle drugs may be preserved for future generations.
Read more on this topic: