Antibiotics in Agriculture Could Create Public Health Crisis

First Posted: Dec 26, 2013 10:04 AM EST

Antibiotics could be creating a public health crisis. Citing an overuse of antibiotics by the agriculture and aquaculture industries, researchers have taken a closer look at how to potentially curtail this use.

In the United States, 80 percent of the antibiotics in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production. Yet this flood of antibiotics also has drastic implications for the environment. Bacteria have evolved to cope with the antibiotics and have become resistant to the drugs. This has resulted in an increase in bacteria that is immune to available treatments. If left unchecked, this bacteria could create a public health crisis on a global scale.

Yet there may be a way to help halt this flood of antibiotics. The researchers have proposed a user fee on the non-human uses of antibiotics. This would be similar to the way in which logging companies pay stumpage fees and oil companies pay royalties.

"Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections," said Aiden Hollis, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This is incredibly important. Without effective antibiotics, any surgery--even minor ones--will become extremely risky. Cancer therapies, similarly, are dependent on the availability of effective antimicrobials. Ordinary infections will kill otherwise healthy people."

Antibiotics are used in agriculture in order to prevent animals from becoming ill. This, in turn, helps increase food production. Yet this marginal increase in profitability could be costing the public its health.

"It's about increasing the efficiency of food so you can reduce the amount of grain you feed cattle," said Hollis in a news release. "It's about giving antibiotics to baby chicks because it reduces the likelihood that they're going to get sick when you cram them together in unsanitary conditions. These methods are obviously profitable to the farmers, but that doesn't mean it's generating a huge benefit. In fact, the profitability is usually quite marginal. The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial."

The findings are published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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