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Published: Tuesday, 3/30/2010

Pearls before swine

IT IS possible to have too much of a good thing. That is true of antibiotic drugs, the great lifesavers of modern medicine.

The worst threat of antibiotics' unrestrained use is not doctors writing scrips for their human patients. It is their regular use in treating farm animals who are not sick.

Farmers use drugs pre-emptively to keep livestock healthy, to promote growth, and to compensate for often unsanitary conditions of industrial-style farms. It is estimated that 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are fed to farm animals for nontherapeutic purposes.

One of the consequences of this profligate usage is the rise of “superbugs,” which have grown resistant to antibiotics and thus are less effective in treating humans.

The most notorious example is MRSA, a type of staph infection, which kills about 18,000 Americans annually. That's more than the number of people who die from AIDS.

Yet as farmers have demonstrated here and overseas, filling animals full of drugs is not necessary to make a living.

The problem is well documented and has been widely reported. But that doesn't mean the bottom-line self-interest of Big Pharma and Big Ag is suddenly going to go away and take these unhealthy practices with it. It is going to take federal legislation — and Congress has an ideal vehicle to move ahead.

The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 would phase out of agriculture the nontherapeutic use of seven classes of antibiotic drugs with human applications.

They would be subject to certain exemptions than could be granted by the secretary of Agriculture — for example, if it is shown that a drug is critical to the rearing of animals.

Two versions of the same bill have been introduced — one sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D., N.Y.), the only microbiologist in the chamber, and an equivalent Senate version. Both are before their appropriate committees.

The legislation has wide support in the medical community, including the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association. Just reading the legislative findings provides a chilling reminder why: “If current trends continue,” the legislation states, “treatments for common infections will become increasingly limited and expensive, and, in some cases, nonexistent.”

And this: “Antibiotic resistance, resulting in a reduced number of effective antibiotics, may significantly impair the ability of the United States to respond to terrorist attacks involving bacterial infections.”

To the peril of its citizens, this nation is taking the pearls of modern drugs and almost literally casting them before swine.

Congress must stop that.

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