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One Cow at a Time: Fighting Drug-Resistant Pathogens

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Legislation to regulate the use of antibiotics in animal feed has support from some, as concerns about drug resistant pathogens increase in the health care community.

In the 1980s, drug companies put 29 new antibiotics on the market. That number has fallen to nine in the past decade, according to a study by the CDC and Pew Charitable Trusts. The agency and the foundation say antibiotic resistance accounts for 60,000 deaths a year and $26 billion in additional health care costs.

The CDC has formed a coalition with 26 groups — including The Infectious Disease Society of America, The Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America and The Society of Infectious Disease Pharmacists — with the mandate to protect the effectiveness of antibiotics and slow the development of antibiotic resistance.

As part of its campaign, the coalition released a plan that includes a focus on agriculture’s use of antibiotics. While there’s no reference to mandatory regulations, the group did issue a call “to reinforce the judicious use of antibiotics in agriculture.”

Antibiotic use on animals is part of the equation, Arjun Srinivasan of the CDC said. Antibiotic levels in food animals are often below the amounts generally used in treating human illness, he said, and those who see a link between drug use in animals and resistant microbes say the sub-therapeutic levels allow bacteria to adapt and to make subsequent generations nearly immune to certain antibiotics. “We must work on both sides of this issue,” he said.

An estimated 80 percent of all antibiotics produced in the United States are given to animals, most of them grown for food, the CDC and FDA, among others, say.

Producers say the science linking antibiotics to resistance in humans is inconclusive. They argue it is not enough to support what they see as sweeping and costly restrictions on drugs that help them stay in business.

“Through multiple industry-led initiatives ... ranchers work with veterinarians to select and use antibiotics carefully and when needed,” J.D. Alexander, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a statement Thursday.

In the meantime, supporters do not expect to see much movement on this issue until the next Congress. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, plans to file legislation this month that would require drug companies to detail agricultural use of antibiotics, including the type of animals that receive the drugs and the reason the drugs were administered. But he does not expect anything to happen with it until the 113th Congress. The plan at this point is probably to try to include it in the Animal Drug User Fee Act, which will be up for reauthorization in 2013.

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