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Antibiotic Resistance

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Once a fear, now a reality

Once a fear, now a reality. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are on the rise, placing humans at risk. Patients once effectively treated for pneumonia, tuberculosis and ear and skin infections may now have to try three or more antibiotics before finding one that works if they can find one at all. Overuse of antibiotics is the reason for this; we have facilitated the development of superbugs, mutated over time to be resistant to available drugs.

Physicians and hospitals have overprescribed antibiotics, and patients have demanded them even for illnesses not caused by bacteria. Another major cause of antibiotic resistance is the massive use of antibiotics by the factory farm industry to promote animal growth, curtail disease and ensure more profits. Produce growers are also guilty of spraying antibiotics freely on crops to control bacteria that damage vegetables and kill trees.

This overuse is taking its toll on humans. Take the case of popular television host Rosie O'Donnell, who was hospitalized for 10 days due to an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that began in her hand and spread to her bloodstream. When the infection could not be treated, doctors were nearly forced to amputate her hand. Similar scenarios have been repeated many times throughout North America, and the incidence of allergic reactions to antibiotics has also intensified.

In the battle against drug-resistant bacteria, scientists developed a new type of antibiotic, the first in 35 years. A little more than one year after being introduced, this new antibiotic, Zyvox, was beaten by the staph supergerm.

Bigger Picture

Most of us know very little about the antibiotics used in animal husbandry, nor have we paid much attention to the issue. Until now. Whereas factory farmers have overused antibiotics to promote animal growth and prevent and treat disease, growing public concern is forcing a reduction of their use on a global scale.

Backed by concerned international scientists, the editors of the New England Journal of Medicine recently called for a ban on all non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in agriculture. For the last three years, the European Union has tightly regulated animal antibiotics related to those used in human medicine.

Denmark has banned animal feed antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes, and the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their chickens and pigs has decreased dramatically. Before the ban, the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in chickens was 82 percent; three years after the ban, prevalence had dropped to 12 percent and (as studies show) all without adverse effects on animal health or farmers' income.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has urged countries to discontinue the use of Chloramphenicol, a broad-spectrum antibiotic used in human and pet medicine, animal feed and aquaculture. Studies have concluded that this antibiotic could cause genetic damage and a serious disease called aplastic anemia, and could possibly lead to cancer. Here in Canada, our Food and Drugs Act regulations indicate under sub-section C.01.610.1 that it is forbidden to sell a drug for administration to food animals if that drug contains Chloramphenicol or its salts or derivatives.

Focus on Feed

In the United States, general alarm over the overuse of antibiotics has prompted US Congressman Sherrod Brown to introduce a bill to phase out the use of antibiotics for purposes other than treating animal disease. This bill would also end the use of Cipro and Cipro-like drugs in poultry, which are used solely to promote growth. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that using fluoroquinolones, including Bayer's product Baytril, is promoting the development of deadly food poisoning infections that are resistant to Cipro, the drug used to treat anthrax in humans. Bayer, of course, is fighting this proposed ban.

In August 2001, Health Canada issued a stop-sale order on Carbadox, a veterinary antibiotic approved in the 1970s for use in pigs. A scientific review of this drug showed that the byproducts can cause cancer in rats, a red flag on its use in food production.

Unfortunately, Phibro Corporation says it will fight the stop-sale order and any future ban with a challenge under Chapter 11 of NAFTA.

Another food-animal drug, Dimetridazole, continues to be used here, although it is banned in the United States. The FDA ruled in 1986 that a single molecule of this drug can cause cancer.

Canadian Scene

In March 2002, Health Canada pre-published a proposal in the Canada Gazette to amend food and drugs regulations to prohibit the sale of the 5-Nitroimidazole class of veterinary drugs for administration to food-producing animals, and to clarify and extend current prohibitions on the sale of diethylstilbestrol (DES) and other stilbenes. Unfortunately, prohibiting the sale of a drug does not immediately translate into discontinuing its use.

On Feb. 15, 2002, the Honourable Anne McLellan, federal minister of health, announced that the Food and Drugs Act regulations had been amended to formally establish maximum residue limits for 16 veterinary drugs used to prevent and treat disease in food-producing animals. These limits are based on the amount of residue in food that is considered to pose no adverse health effects if ingested daily by humans over a lifetime. (The list is available online at hc-sc.gc.ca.)

But there's a long way to go. Some may remember the controversy surrounding some of Health Canada's top scientists who claimed they were forced to approve veterinary drugs they felt were dangerous. One of these scientists, Shiv Chopra, spoke out: "There is no safe level for these carcinogenic drugs, and we have the hormones on top of it. We are the dumping ground for all these drugs...This is corruption..." Obviously, these scientists felt that the interests of pharmaceutical companies and the agri-industry were being given preference over human health by our Canadian government, and the public chorused its concern.

The poultry industry was listening. Quietly, it has cut back on the amount of non-therapeutic antibiotics used in production, and several large fast-food chains (McDonald's, Wendy's and Popeye's) have decided not to use chickens treated with Cipro or any Cipro-related antibiotics, according to the New York Times.

There is no way for consumers to know whether the chicken, pork or beef they bought has been treated with antibiotics unless it has been labelled "antibiotic-free" or "organic." Farmers are not required to report antibiotic use in animals, and the huge factory farms are fighting any ban on the use of antibiotics in their operations, saying they cannot keep animals in crowded spaces without them.

Bottom line: these huge operations won't make any change without pressure from both consumers and government.

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