The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report in April to “increase awareness of the threat that antibiotic resistance poses and to encourage immediate action to address the threat.” The federal agency warned about “the potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction.”
The evidence has accumulated over decades linking the growing resistance to excessive and inappropriate use of the powerful drugs, some of which are used to treat both humans and animals. Agricultural use, primarily in animal feed and drinking water to treat, control and prevent diseases and to promote growth in food animals, accounts for more than half of the antibiotics used in this country.
Within the past three years, most recently this month, the Food and Drug Administration has issued guidance policies that promise to curb excessive use of antibiotics in food animals. The agency is asking drug companies to revise product labels to remove indications of antibiotic use as growth agents. Also, it would place some antibiotics sold over the counter as additives to animal feed and drinking water under prescription and veterinary oversight.
The agency explains its proposals are voluntary, recommendations that “do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities.” Further, drug companies have three years to adopt the policies before the FDA considers further action.
The changes are long overdue. Still, if the CDC accurately reflects the “catastrophic consequences” of drug resistance, the FDA’s response not only has been too slow but is not aggressive enough to control indiscriminate use of antibiotics in animal food production. Already, an estimated 2 million Americans each year contract bacterial infections that no longer are treatable with existing antibiotics. At least 23,000 of them die as a result. Antibiotic resistance may account for as much as $20 billion a year in excess health-care costs, with an additional $35 billion in lost productivity. Add the cost to find alternatives as the “wonder drugs” lose their potency in treating diseases, and the threat to health is grave.