CDC: Possibly Half of Antibiotics in Humans, Animals Unnecessary

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ATLANTA—More than 2 million people in the United States contract infections each year that are resistant to antibiotics, and these "superbugs" kill at least 23,000 people annually, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Monday.

CDC indicated the most effective way to combat the health threat is to limit use of antibiotics only when they are needed to treat a disease. Officials contend antibiotics in animals and humans are being abused. Nearly half of antibiotics produced in the United States are used in livestock production, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).  

"Up to half of antibiotic use in humans and much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary," CDC declared in a press release.

Antibiotics aren't simply administered to food-producing animals to treat diseases; they have been used to promote their growth. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed guidance that would set a path for administering the drugs only when necessary for medical reasons, CDC noted.

"It is difficult to directly compare the amount of drugs used in food animals with the amount used in humans, but there is evidence that more antibiotics are used in food production," CDC stated in the annual report, "Antibiotic resistant threats in the United States, 2013".  

Peter Collignon, a professor of infectious diseases at the Australian National University, recently told the United Kingdom's Daily Mail that drugs used in animals are causing humans to die.

"We have people dying who do not need to die, because you should not be using these drugs in food animals at all, particularly in poultry," he said in the article.

A third of the 12 resistant bacteria that CDC listed as a "serious" threat to public health are in food, according to CSPI.

"The volume of antibiotics sold for use in animals dwarfs those used in human medicine. While attention to both sectors is vital, action is urgently needed to manage the food safety risks posed by the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animals," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at CSPI, in a statement.

But antibiotics used in animals aren't the sole cause of the growing superbug epidemic. According to CDC, up to half of all antibiotics prescribed for humans are unnecessary or prescribed inappropriately.

Infections such as Clostridium difficile and gonorrhea have been evolving to survive the onslaught of antibiotics, exposing victims to prolonged sickness and causing an estimated $20 billion in additional health care costs, CDC said.  In the United States, the diarrheal infection C. difficile results in 250,000 hospitalizations and at least 14,000 deaths annually, according to the health agency. 

“Every time antibiotics are used in any setting, bacteria evolve by developing resistance. This process can happen with alarming speed," Steve Solomon, M.D., director of CDC’s Office of Antimicrobial Resistance," explained  in a statement. “These drugs are a precious, limited resource—the more we use antibiotics today, the less likely we are to have effective antibiotics tomorrow."

Last year, a federal judge ordered the FDA to begin withdrawing approval for some antibiotics used on livestock until drug makers can prove the drugs are not contributing to drug-resistant bacteria and whether they are safe for human consumption.

"Research has shown that the use of antibiotics in livestock leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be--and has been--transferred from animals to humans through direct contact, environmental exposure, and the consumption and handling of contaminated meat and poultry products," U.S. Magistrate Judge Theodore Katz wrote.

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