Critical medicines of last resort could be lost without immediate regulatory action
WASHINGTON— E. coli bacteria resistant to a critical class of antibiotics has been identified in samples from a pig farm in the Midwest, according to new research released by Ohio State University. The bacteria are resistant to carbapenems, one of the last classes of antibiotics that doctors can rely on to treat multi-drug resistant infections. Of particular concern is that the resistance detected in the E. coli was transferable, meaning the resistant traits can easily pass between bacteria. This news comes just over six months after E. coli resistant to colistin, another last-resort medicine needed for the worst infections, was found for the first time in pigs in the U.S.
“This discovery is a chilling reminder that we are not far from a time when antibiotics may be entirely ineffective in treating life-threatening infections. The federal government must act to prohibit the misuse of antimicrobials for growth promotion and disease prevention in animals raised for food and mandate strong health and welfare conditions for the animals, or we could lose our last line of defense against deadly pathogens,” said Cameron Harsh, Center for Food Safety Senior Manager for Organic and Animal Policy.
Carbapenem drugs are not approved for use in food animals, but pigs commonly receive regular doses of another drug, ceftiofur, to prevent disease during the farrowing stage. The OSU researchers acknowledge that the routine use of ceftiofur can contribute to bacteria selecting for resistance to carbapenems. It has been known for decades that bacteria that develop resistance to a certain drug may also be resistant to similar drugs despite never being directly exposed before. Earlier this year, the United Kingdom’s Review on Antimicrobial Resistance estimated that without appropriate action, antibiotic-resistant infections will kill 10 million people globally per year by 2050, compared to 700,000 today.
“The U.S. government needs to take immediate, enforceable action to curb the over-use and abuse of medically important drugs. Voluntary measures that address only growth promotion uses will not stop this public health crisis. Along with effective regulation, all sectors have to work together to address the spread of superbugs and the threats they pose. Producers, retailers, and consumers alike can and should change their practices immediately to protect human and animal health,” said Harsh.
Market-based changes have already had significant impact on the effort to reduce unnecessary antibiotics use in food and agriculture, as some large restaurant chains have either ended or committed to phase out the routine use of medically important antibiotics in their meat and poultry supplies. In addition to government regulations on antibiotic use in the U.S. agricultural sector, consumer demand for safer, healthier and more humane food animal rearing conditions could be key to preserving the efficacy of last-line-of-defense drugs.