WSU scientists aim to stop people's resistance to antibiotics

SPOKANE, Wash. -- A new study by the Centers for Disease Control indicated that at least two million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics in the United States every year.

According to the C.D.C., at least 23,000 of those people die as a direct result.

Prescribing unnecessary antibiotics to people has been one widely known cause of the problem, but the C.D.C. identified the misuse of drugs in livestock and poultry as another important contributor.

At the "Lazy R Ranch" near Cheney, Wash, Beth Robinette said her cows have been raised on grass, water and sunshine.

"We don't use antibiotics," said Robinette. Robinette noted she would only use antibiotics to save an animal's life.

Otherwise, "It's just not necessary," she said. "If you're using correct management practices, you don't have sick animals and you don't need to pump them full of drugs."

Robinette's stance has been a stark contrast to many American factory farms where antibiotics have been given to animals in low doses to promote weight gain and help them survive packed conditions.

The use of antibiotics has been a practice Guy Palmer, with Washington State University's Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health, wished would stop.

"From a personal opinion as well as a professional opinion," said Palmer, "I fully support stopping the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics."

Palmer said he has made antibiotic resistance his life's work. Palmer insisted his school has been taking a leading role to study antibiotic resistance. Inside WSU's Pullman labs, Palmer said antibiotics have been scrutinized under microscopes.

"(WSU scientists) can actually look at the profile of antibiotic resistance that a given bacterium is carrying," noted Palmer.

Researchers claim that resistance has been a natural consequence of evolution, but studies have demonstrated that the excessive use of antibiotics in animals and humans has hastened resistance.

The consequences prompted The World Health Organization to issue a warning that called antibiotic resistance a "major public health threat" in every country. The W.H.O. warned that the world is headed for a "post-antibiotic era", in which "common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill."

"People died of things that today we could treat quite easily," said Palmer. "So I think the fear is we will get back to that point."

Faced with the evidence, workers in the food industry have argued that they have carried too much of the blame. They insisted there has been no proof that antibiotic use on farms has significantly increased resistant bacteria in humans.

Palmer said he is well aware of the controversy. "It's controversial because people argue, yes, it contributes to antimicrobial resistance but it's not a major contributor to antimicrobial resistance. I think that argument is less important," he said. "Society's priority for the use of antibiotics is obviously for human use. We're not willing to trade off this concept of animals growing faster if it endangers the antibiotics that we use for humans."

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration agreed with Palmer's stance.

Representatives said it is important to use drugs on animals only when medically necessary. Because of that, the F.D.A. has asked the food industry to voluntarily phase out the use of certain antibiotics for enhanced food production. Palmer said he believes the move could create opportunities for healthy change saying, "Washington State and the country have the potential to take a leadership role in alternatives to have healthy, productive animals in the absence of this non-therapeutic use of antibiotics."

Robinette applauded any move that could bring the food supply a closer to nature. She said it is precisely the reason she goes to work each day.

"I think the world is a little better place when i go to sleep than it was when I woke up and that's about all you can ask for," she said.

In addition to food, studies have proven that the more antibiotics people take, the more they provide bacteria the chance to develop resistance.

For that reason, Palmer said humans, like animals, should only be given antibiotics when absolutely necessary.


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