When the chickens come home to roost (4/12/12)
Nobody Here But Us Chickens
Solely within hospitals, antibiotic-resistant infections hit 2 million Americans a year, according to an article today by Gardiner Harris in the New York Times. They kill about a hundred thousand. One of the more famous infections, MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, kills perhaps 20,000 every year.
Where do all these antibiotic-resistant bugs come from here? Much of the blame is apportioned to overuse of antibiotics by harried American doctors. They’re just trying to cope in their six minute patient sessions with sick, tetchy ill people suffering self-limited viral infections. Click the computer monitor and the deed’s done. No more angry calls.
However, about four-fifths of antibiotics given in this country appear in animal feed. Not only is antibiotic resistance growing throughout the land, but developing new antibiotics to stop the resistant bugs is not keeping up.
Many drugs used today by infectious disease experts were discarded in the 1950s. They were too toxic. Today we use them because many bugs have not developed resistance to them – yet.
So if you want to stop future antibiotic resistance pandemics infecting you and your family, you better pay attention to the chickens.
Eleven Hens in Two Square Feet
Last week, Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times explained how your home and fast-food chickens are plentifully supplied with arsenic, hormones, caffeine, Benadryl, even anti-depressants – most of which also manage to find their way into our water. This week he reports on a new Humane Society study of Kreider Farms, a major egg producer:
- Hens are sometimes spaced together 11 to a cage – which are all of two by two feet (now you know why they need the prozac and benadryl.)
- Chickens decapitated by feeding carts may remain as corpses in cages, rotting for weeks. Others with their heads stuck in wires are left to die.
- They’re all plentifully fed antibiotics.
If you thought that sounds like a great opportunity to create bacteria resistant to antibiotics, you’d be right.
Your Best Bet – Hire a Vet
Most of the rest of the world has, for this very reason, banned antibiotics in animal feed. Not the U.S. The FDA has tried to do that – for 35 years. Agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies have won the fight time after time.
But today the FDA reported that farmers and ranchers will now need a veterinarian’s prescription to give animals antibiotics.
This may be progress. But small ranchers and farmers will have a harder time getting vets to provide the drugs. This will put them at a competitive disadvantage to the bigger agribusinesses like Kreider. A company which produces four-and-a-half million eggs a day may have less trouble inducing docs to sign antibiotic prescriptions than a small farmer in Iowa.
Money always matters.
We Don’t Want Cures
Yesterday I spoke with a biotech entrepeneur with an unusual complaint – that Big Pharma did not want drugs that cure.
Once someone is cured, they won’t need the drug anymore. But if you have an illness like diabetes, they may need to take the new drug for decades and decades.
A much more profitable proposition.
Such a problem has hit antibiotic development. Infectious disease experts frequently lobby for more government support and money to create new antibiotics. Every day they see people dying that they can’t treat. And the next day there are more of them.
Industry officials admit privately that there just isn’t enough money to be made in antibiotics. It’s too expensive to go through the very difficult and long drug discovery process, and then sell something “you just use once.”
Which leaves you and me requiring drugs that won’t be there.
Norway and MRSA
Norway is small, reasonably homogenous, and with oil money, rich. They’ve also had in Gro Brundtland a former health minister who later became prime minister – and then head of the World Health Organization.
MRSA was killing a lot of Norwegians. Government and medical societies clamped down on use of antibiotics for colds. They restricted use of newer antibiotics to resistant infections. They cultured hospital employees for MRSA, and treated them if they had it.
MRSA virtually disappeared.
What the Norwegians did was to use standard public health measures to eradicate a dangerous epidemic. It worked.
Guess who will block such actions here?
Chickens Coming Home to Roost
You don’t have to watch a movie like “Contagion” to figure out how to produce an epidemic. You put animals together in cramped conditions – with humans next door. The hygiene is less than sanitary. Humans then prepare and eat the animal products.
That’s how diseases like influenzas get their punch. But now add to the equation giving all those animals antibiotics – in their feed.
Bugs are smart. To survive they have to come up with genes that will get around the killing of their antibiotic enemies.
The human body is a giant ecosystem. There are over 1000 forms of bacteria in your gut. Their numbers add up to over 100 trillion bugs. Each has the capacity to mutate and reproduce within hours.
That’s our human ecosystem. Now consider an additional billions and billions of animals fed antibiotics – every day they’re alive. Even if they’re suffering from inner infections, they’ll usually show up on a plate somewhere.
The truth is, folks, this story is not about the chickens left 11 to a cage. It’s about us. Because of how we deal with public health, we’re in real danger of becoming “chickens” – open to truly nasty antibiotic-resistant bugs that can kill far more than the tens of thousands they already kill each year.
People can’t work when they’re sick. They truly won’t work when they’re dead. A healthy economy requires a healthy population.
Prompted by Kristof’s article, Maryland is about to ban arsenic in chicken feed.
The prozac – and antibiotics – will still be there. So will the antibiotic-resistant bugs in your chickens.
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