FDA finally addresses problem of antibiotic overuse by meat industry — sort of

Back in September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report connecting the use of antibiotics in livestock to antibiotic resistance in humans. It was an important step in turning science into action. Although human use and misuse of antibiotics and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in hospitals are important parts of the puzzle of antibiotic resistance, the massive use of antibiotics by the agricultural industry also plays a key role. In fact, the vast majority of antibiotics used in the United States are used by animals. (Reasonable estimates range as high as 80%.)

What's more, the vast majority of that antibiotic use has nothing to do with the health of the animals. The antibiotics have the side effect of promoting weight gain. Important drugs like penicillin and tetracycline are regularly doled out to cows and pigs and chickens as part of their daily feed in order to make them fatter — a practice which has been shown to directly reduce those drugs' effectiveness at treating actual illness in humans. Today, the FDA announced that it plans to change this ... but there are problems.

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Nightmare bugs: Answers to your questions about antibiotic resistance

Last night, the PBS show Frontline aired a new documentary about antibiotic resistance and the growing risks we all face from the increasingly untreatable bacteria that live in both hospitals and our communities. Starting at noon Eastern/11:00 Central, I'll be moderating a live web chat with the documentary's producers and infectious disease expert Dr. Sean Elliot. We'll be talking about the film, but we'll also be taking your questions and trying to add some context to the fear. We know antibiotic resistance is a big problem. So what can we actually do about it?

You can follow along with the chat and submit questions here:

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Join in a live chat today about antibiotic resistance

Later today, I'll be moderating a live web chat about antibiotic resistance with an infectious disease expert and the producers of PBS Frontline's new documentary "Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria". The chat starts at noon Eastern/11:00 Central and will be posted here. We'll be taking reader questions. If you can't make it, you can post questions the comment thread for this post in our BBS. Hope you can join us!

Antibiotic resistance: Watch a documentary tonight, join in a live chat tomorrow

Tonight at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central, PBS Frontline will air a documentary about the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I got a chance to see a preview of the show, and it's definitely interesting, including details I wasn't previously aware of, despite having written about this topic before. Particularly interesting: An emphasis on naturally occurring gene transfer between different species of bacteria, which is allowing antibiotic resistance to spread at an alarmingly quick rate. I had also not realized that antibiotic-resistant bacteria probably kill more Americans every year than AIDS — "probably", because nobody is required to actually track and report this stuff. Your local hospital could be in the midst of a serious outbreak of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and, unless they choose to voluntarily release that information, you might never know.

Whether or not you get a chance to watch the documentary tonight, we hope you'll join us here tomorrow for a live chat session with the producers and a doctor who specializes in treating patients with antibiotic-resistant infections. That starts at noon Eastern/11:00 central, and will be moderated by either me or Rob. We've got some questions we're looking forward to addressing with the panel, and we hope you'll bring in some great questions, too. The first half of the chat will focus on the documentary. The second half will be aimed more at a practical understanding of what you can actually do to protect yourself, your family, and your community.

Why did we start using antibiotics in animal feed?

In 1950, farmers praised the news that small amounts of antibiotics would help their livestock put on more weight, faster. Ironically, that same year, different scientists published some early evidence of antibacterial resistance. At Scientific American's new food blog, Maureen Ogle writes about the history of antibiotic use in agriculture. Her story provides some great context to recent headlines, helping us better understand why our society originally made the decisions that led to our current struggle against antibiotic resistance.

Not your great-great-grandfather's consumption

Tuberculosis — aka, the reason everybody in 19th century literature is always coughing up blood, escaping to the countryside for "better air", or dying tragically young — is back. And this time, it's evolved a resistance to antibiotics. In fact, in a handful of cases, tuberculosis has been resistant to every single antibiotic available to treat it. Tom Levenson explains what's happening and why it matters at The New Yorker.