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Monday, Sep 01, 2014
Editorials

Killing our wonder drugs

Published:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s warning about the deadly threat of antibiotic-resistant infections the other day should prompt widespread reforms.

But we suspect the report that found more than 2 million people in the United States are afflicted with drug-resistant infections a year — 23,000 cases are fatal — is likely to be met with the same inaction that followed other warnings of about deadly “superbugs.”

The promiscuous use of antibiotics, in medical treatment and food production, is the likely blame for much of the problem.

But Washington has been reluctant to exert tighter control, given the opposition of the agricultural industry and other influential interests.

As the CDC report further documents, infectious diseases are becoming more difficult to treat.

Already, once readily treatable illnesses such as strep throat have become resistant to antibiotics. The CDC earlier this year reported drug-resistant gonorrhea was increasing.

The latest report estimates antibiotic resistant infections cost the nation about $20 billion in unnecessary health care costs each year and perhaps as much as an additional $35 million in lost productivity.

Antibiotics are wonder drugs that have saved countless lives, but widespread and often indiscriminate use has resulted in many germs becoming more tolerant of the treatment.

A few years ago an Associated Press investigative series found that the nation used more than 35 million pounds of antibiotics a year, and 70 percent of the drugs were given to “pigs, chickens and cows.” The practice enables bacteria that may be transmitted to humans to adapt to the drugs.

Much of the agricultural use of antibiotics is necessary to ensure the health of animals in livestock facilities. But the drugs are also given to promote growth. This is understandable given that extra weight increases profit margins, but it hardly seems to justify compromising the effectiveness of essential drugs.

Agricultural use is hardly the only culprit. Patients frequently misuse the drugs. They often stop using the antibiotics once they begin to feel better, rather than taking them for the prescribed length of time. This increases the odds of germs becoming drug tolerant. Some patients seek antibiotics for colds and other illnesses where they have little effect.

The latest CDC report estimates that as many of 50 percent of antibiotics are prescribed incorrectly or to patients who do not need them.

The AP investigation found that Norway impressively reduced the rate of infectious disease by reducing the medical use of antibiotics.

Yet the United States, despite alarming evidence, has done little.

It’s time Congress and the Food and Drug Administration treat this as the growing crisis that it is.

As CDC director Thomas Frieden aptly warned, “If we are not careful, we’ll go the medicine cabinet, and it will be empty.”

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