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New antibiotics -- or needless deaths

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted October 3, 2011

For decades, physicians and livestock producers have been warring about the low-level feeding of antibiotics to hogs and poultry. The meat producers have been putting small quantities of antibiotics into their poultry, hog, and cattle feeds to prevent the development of animal disease epidemics. The better herd and flock health reduces death losses and animal suffering -- and also slashes their feed requirements.

However, the doctors asserted that resistance to new antibiotics was appearing too fast to be explained by the modest levels of the prescriptions they write. Human lives are clearly at stake. The Centers for Disease Control and physicians' associations demanded the end of farm antibiotic use

The farmers fired back: The physicians and public are too careless with their new medicines. Half the antibiotic prescriptions are written for patients suffering from viral diseases; the antibiotics can't cure these, but patients demand pills. Then people quit taking the pills as soon as they feel better. That ignores the advice from their doctors and druggists: "Take as directed until all these pills are gone." Otherwise, the toughest bacteria will be left alive -- and help create resistance to the new wonder-drug.

As the farmers pointed out, however, most of the antibiotics they fed to livestock were not widely used in human medicine. Why were farmers to blame when hospital resistance quickly developed to the very newest human-prescribed antibiotics?

Some European countries even banned antibiotics in feed -- with no apparent reduction in the development of antibiotic resistance.

Finally, we seem to have found the answer to the riddle: the antibiotic resistance was there before we discovered antibiotics. Remember, humans didn't invent the anti-bacterial wonder drugs, we have simply isolated anti-bacterial agents that already existed in the infinite, competitive variety of nature.

Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario have found that antibiotic resistance has been around for at least 30,000 years. A team led by the University's Dr. Gerry Wright extracted bacterial DNA from soil frozen in the Yukon Territories for at least 300 centuries. They found antibiotic resistance genes, along with the DNA of extinct mammoths and three-toed sloths; and from plants not found in that locality since the Pleistocene era.  

"Antibiotics are part of the natural ecology of the planet," says Dr. Wright, "so when we think that we have developed some drug that won't be susceptible to resistance . . . we are completely kidding ourselves. . . . Microorganisms figured out a way of how to get around [antibiotics] before we even figured out how to use them [antibiotics]."

That clearly gives us our medical marching orders: Keep researching new antibiotics to stay ahead of the resistance. Our public policies need a much higher emphasis on welcoming antibiotic research. Memo to the Food and Drug Administration: this research tells us there is no drug that will work perpetually. Let's move faster with good new antibiotics

It's too bad the government has already spent all of our money on "stimulus" plans that didn't work. Otherwise, we could offer a big national prize for new antibiotics developed competitively by our pharmaceutical corporations. ESR

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., is an environmental economist. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years. Readers may write to him at PO Box 202 Churchville, VA 2442; email to cgfi@hughes.net or visit us at www.cgfi.org


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