Chicago Tribune: After the wave of anthrax exposures discovered in recent days, Americans don't need to be convinced of the value of antibiotics. The dangerous bacteria used in these apparent attacks would be far more deadly and more frightening if not for medicines that can fight off such infections. These days, antibiotics are a critical line of defense, not just in terms of medicine but in terms of national security.
So Americans should be alarmed to find that our existing antibiotics are being slowly weakened and undermined -- not by our enemies, but by ourselves. The chronic overuse of these drugs is systematically breeding stronger, hardier bacteria that could eventually prove to be a major public health menace.
Much of the overuse can be blamed on doctors and patients who insist on antibiotic treatment even when it's not clearly warranted. Some people who fear they've been exposed to anthrax have started taking Cipro, a powerful drug that is widely and wrongly thought to be the only effective antidote. That approach will inevitably promote the rise of bacteria that are less susceptible to it.
But a bigger potential problem is the common use of antibiotics to promote growth among livestock raised for food. It's estimated that in the United States, perhaps eight times more antibiotics are used in animal feed than are used in treating human disease. Public-health experts have warned against such practices, and now their warnings are being vindicated.
A recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine included two studies that discovered that we are creating drug-resistant strains of bacteria that cause food-borne illness in humans.
Salmonella: A study of ground beef sold in American grocery stores found that 20 percent were contaminated with salmonella -- and that 84 percent of these microbes showed resistance to at least one antibiotic. An investigation of poultry found that 17 percent of chickens tested had strains of bacteria that were resistant to a new antibiotic.
Such growing resistance to drugs means that Americans are likely to suffer frequent and severe infections -- some of them deadly. It also means that eventually we may face bacterial infections that are immune to treatment.
The only sensible response is to restrict or prohibit the use of important antibiotics in animal feed. The European Union took that step in 1998, banning their use on animals except to treat actual disease.
The drawback is that food prices may rise as farmers and ranchers lose a useful tool for maximizing output and containing costs. But it seems more prudent for Americans to pay more for food and preserve the effectiveness of these medicines than to get cheap food that carries a very high hidden price.
This step is not enough by itself. Public health officials need to take action as well to prevent the abuse of antibiotics by doctors and patients. But limiting antibiotics in agriculture is one part of an overdue effort to conserve a vital national resource.