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Non-Therapeutic Use of Antibiotics in Animal Agriculture, Corresponding Resistance Rates, and What Can be Done About It

Authors: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health, and Kammerle Schneider
June 19, 2009
Center for Global Development


The same commercial animal farms that provided the breeding grounds for the novel H1N1 A virus that caused the current "Swine Flu" pandemic are home to another dangerous threat to human health: antibiotic resistance.

In the United States, feed animals--poultry, swine, cattle and sheep--are routinely fed low doses of antibiotics through their water or food troughs to promote growth and expedite weight gain. A series of large scale studies conducted by the Department of Agriculture in 1999, 2001 and 2006 revealed that over 80 percent of swine farms, cattle feedlots and sheep farms administer antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes (i.e., not used to treat diseases). Many of the antibiotics used on animals are identical or closely related to those used to prevent infections among humans, including tetracyclines, macrolides, bacitracin, penicillins, and sulfonamides. Bacteria in animals (as in humans) are able to develop antibiotic resistance when exposed to low doses of drugs over a long period of time, contributing to the rise of pathogens that are able to defeat our shared antibiotic arsenal.

For over a decade, multiple scientific studies have confirmed that the use of antibiotics in agricultural animals contributes to the development of resistant bacterial infections in humans. A March 2003 National Academy of Sciences report stated that "a decrease in antimicrobial use of human medicine alone will have little effect on the current situation of growing antibiotic resistance. Substantial efforts must be made to decrease inappropriate overuse in animals and agriculture as well."Similarly, in 2000, a WHO report on infectious disease stated "Since the discovery of the growth-promoting and disease-fighting capabilities of antibiotics, farmers, fish-farmers, and livestock producers have used antibiotics in everything from apples to aquaculture. This ongoing and often low-level dosing for growth and prophylaxis inevitably results in the development of resistance in bacteria in or near livestock, and also heightens fear of new resistant strains "jumping" between species..."

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