As a physician who treats children with infectious diseases, I'm reminded every day that one of the most important medical achievements of the last century was the development of antimicrobial drugs.
But now these powerful tools could be rendered useless because of drug resistance, threatening a health-care catastrophe. Congress and the Food and Drug Administration have been considering actions that could help, but we don't have the luxury of time on our side.
During the last hundred years, antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs have helped physicians and other health-care professionals save millions of lives and ease patients' suffering.
But over time, bacteria can develop resistance to existing drugs, making it difficult -- if not impossible -- to treat the "super bugs" that cause extremely dangerous infections. The World Health Organization has identified antimicrobial resistance as one of the three greatest threats to human health.
The most important source of the problem is overuse. Unfortunately, one of the most troubling causes of overuse lies in the raising of food animals.
Thirty years of scientific evidence demonstrates that antibiotic use in food animal production contributes to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria to people in many ways. At present, the vast majority of antibiotics administered to food animals are to promote rapid growth and save money on feed.
The results are far from trivial. Experts recently estimated the cost of antimicrobial resistance at more than $20 billion in the United States due to the use of more expensive drugs and extended hospital stays. More important, about 2 million people acquire bacterial infections in U.S. hospitals each year, and 90,000 die as a result. Projections are moving toward more infections and more suffering.
At the same time, the pipeline for new antibiotics is drying up. The Infectious Diseases Society of America is so concerned about the lack of prospective new drugs that it asked President Barack Obama and other leaders to support a global commitment to develop 10 new antibiotics by 2020. While we work to achieve the goal, we cannot afford to indulge the agricultural food industry by permitting it to continue feeding these drugs to animals for a few cents of profit per pound of meat.
Members of Congress have introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which addresses routine use of antibiotics in food animal production. This bill would ban antibiotics of importance to human health from use for growth promotion, feed efficiency and routine disease prevention in food animals. IDSA has joined the country's foremost scientific and medical experts to urge Congress to pass the act. Last year, the FDA proposed an approach similar to PAMTA, but with limited allowances for disease prevention uses for these drugs. Any final agreement on the appropriate uses of these drugs must be codified into law.
Unfortunately, agricultural special interests are intensely lobbying against both approaches. We cannot afford to let them win. Without public support and quick government action, we stand little chance of getting ahead of the drug-resistant bacteria that take the lives of our loved ones with increasing frequency each year.
Whitley is president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.McCLATCHY-TRIBUNE