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The Risks of Pigging Out on Antibiotics

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Science  05 Sep 2008:
Vol. 321, Issue 5894, pp. 1294
DOI: 10.1126/science.321.5894.1294a

The News story “The bacteria fight back” by G. Taubes (Special Section on Drug Resistance, 18 July, p. 356) highlights the growing health threat from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, especially methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and the need to rein in medical uses of antibiotics to curb resistance.

But reining in health care uses alone is insufficient to address the resistance epidemic. As recommended by the Institute of Medicine (1), World Health Organization (2), American Academy of Pediatrics (3), and other health organizations, routine and widespread use of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture also must be ended to effectively address resistance. Recent evidence showing that some human MRSA infections are associated with animal agriculture underscores this point.

In Europe, MRSA has been shown to be transmitted from pigs to farmers and their families, veterinarians, and hospital staff (4, 5). One MRSA strain, once found only in pigs, is associated with serious human illness, including skin, wound, lung, and heart infections (6, 7). This new pig strain is linked to more than 20% of human MRSA infections in the Netherlands (8).

Researchers have only begun to examine MRSA from North American livestock. Both Canadian pig farmers and swine are commonly colonized by MRSA (9). A recent study found that 70% of the tested pigs in Iowa and Illinois carried MRSA (10).

Extensive use of antibiotics in livestock operations can select for resistant bacteria such as MRSA, just as in health care settings. By one estimate, more than 70% of all antibiotics and related drugs used in the United States are used as feed additives for livestock (11). Dutch pig farms that routinely use antibiotics are more likely to have MRSA than farms with limited antibiotic use (12).

According to the World Health Organization, “Our grandparents lived during an age without antibiotics. So could many of our grandchildren” (13). Overuse of antibiotics in agriculture as well as in human medicine could result in this frightening outcome.

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