Antibiotic-resistant germs (bacteria), including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), kill 23,000+ people and cause 2+ million illnesses each year in the United States. This is happening because these bacteria no longer respond to the antibiotics designed to kill them.
If I had no direct experience with the above statistics, I may glance at the numbers and continue with my day. Devastatingly, I am an example of the real and destructive effects of antibiotic resistance. My husband and I experienced every parent’s worst nightmare. On April 16, 2004, our toddler son, Simon Sparrow, woke up with a terrified scream, a fever and difficulty breathing. Less than 24 hours later, my beautiful cherub of a son was pronounced dead, without a precise cause of death. An autopsy revealed that Simon had contracted MRSA—specifically, a new strain called community-associated MRSA, a “superbug."
Simon Sol Sparrow died at 18 months of age after contracting an antibiotic-resistant bacterium.
MRSA is a bacterium that causes hard-to-treat infections. It has traditionally been contracted in healthcare settings such as hospitals but is now found in community settings, including playgrounds, child-care centers, locker rooms, athletic facilities, jails, military quarters and student dormitories. In 2004, I had never heard of MRSA—and I have a doctorate from the Harvard School of Public Health! Years later, I joined infectious disease experts to help form the MRSA Research Center at the University of Chicago to address the exaggerated demand for antibiotics by patients and the tendency to overprescribe antibiotics among doctors. Two-thirds of infectious disease doctors have treated patients with infections that did not respond to any antibiotics and half of all antibiotic use in humans is unnecessary or inappropriate. Antibiotics and our food chain Soon after starting my work at the University of Chicago, The Pew Charitable Trusts informed me that antibiotics are used in healthy animals to promote growth and prevent disease in crowded or unsanitary conditions. More than 34 million pounds of antibiotics are sold for use in food animal production. That’s four times the amount sold to treat sick people. This means that more than 70% of medically important antibiotics are sold in the United States for use in food animal production. The regular, sub-therapeutic (low-dose) use of antibiotics in food animal production is a perfect recipe for antibiotic resistance, as weaker bacteria are killed when faced with antibiotics, leaving stronger bacteria to survive and produce a next generation, continuing the cycle of superbug production. Change is happening Since 2012, I have advocated in Washington, D.C., for legislation that supports the judicious use of antibiotics. While getting legislation passed is a long and frustrating experience, we have seen concrete changes. As of December 2016 farmers can no longer use antibiotics for growth promotion (the policy does not say anything about disease prevention, however). Instead of over-the-counter availability, antibiotics added to water now require a prescription from a veterinarian, and antibiotics added to feed require a Veterinary Feed Directive. Previously, farmers could buy many antibiotics at feed stores or over the Internet. The area in which I have witnessed the greatest change has been in consumer demand. In response to consumers’ voices, Tyson (a major producer of beef, chicken and pork) will eliminate antibiotics that are also used to treat human illnesses. McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A and Subway are all either reducing or eliminating antibiotics used by their suppliers. Perdue (another major producer of beef, chicken and pork) has agreed to process two-thirds of its chickens without antibiotics.
What can you do? Antibiotic resistance is a problem that we can solve. What can you do?
At restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals and schools, buy or demand beef, poultry and pork from farms that do not use antibiotics in the raising of food animals.
Talk with your doctor about when it is medically necessary for you to use antibiotics and which antibiotics are appropriate for your specific illness.
When you do need antibiotics, make sure to use them exactly as prescribed, such as by taking all of the medication even if you are feeling better (if treatment stops too soon, the antibiotic may not kill all of the bacteria—the remaining bacteria may become resistant to the antibiotic).
Do not use other people’s “leftover” antibiotics.
Imagine a world in which we could no longer rely on antibiotics. Life would look similar to life in the early 20th century before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Fleming himself warned in 1945, “There is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug, make them resistant."
Scientists are not known for hyperbole, and that is why a 2014 World Health Organization (WHO) statement should catapult us into action: “A post-antibiotic era—in which common infections and minor injuries can kill—far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century." On November 7, 2017, WHO urged farmers to not use antibiotics to promote livestock growth, wait until animals are medically diagnosed with a problem before administering antibiotics and, when possible, select medications that are not important for human health. Unfortunately, these recommendations are not law.
We are now on the brink of a post-antibiotic era. I got a window into a post-antibiotic world when I witnessed my own toddler son die in my arms. Let’s not let another parent suffer that agony. Antibiotics are a precious gift that should only be used when absolutely necessary and as prescribed. To save antibiotics, we must stop using antibiotics inappropriately.
Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/index.html
MRSA Infection, Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mrsa/basics/definition/con-20024479
MRSA Research Center. The University of Chicago Medicine. mrsa-research-center.bsd.uchicago.edu
As United Nations Focuses on Superbugs, Hatch Highlights PATH Act. Orrin Hatch. September 21, 2016. www.hatch.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/releases?ID=0A4BE9BD-4076-4AF9-964F-95E661491755
"Antibiotics Aren’t Always the Answer." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov/features/getsmart/index.html
"The Overuse of Antibiotics in Food Animals Threatens Public Health." ConsumersUnion. consumersunion.org/news/the-overuse-of-antibiotics-in-food-animals-threatens-public-health-2/
"Antibiotics: excessive use in livestock and why it is a problem." Feed Them Wisely. feedthemwisely.com/antibiotics-in-livestock
Maryn McKenna. "After years of debate, the FDA finally curtails antibiotic use in livestock." Newsweek. January 13, 2017. www.newsweek.com/after-years-debate-fda-curtails-antibiotic-use-livestock-542428
Chris Dall. "FDA: Antibiotic use in food animals continues to rise." Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP). University of Minnesota. December 22, 2016. www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2016/12/fda-antibiotic-use-food-animals-continues-rise
Tamara Scully. "Cattlemen prepare for antibiotic regulations changes." Country Folks. countryfolks.com/cattlemen-prepare-for-antibiotic-regulations-changes/
Tyson Foods Strives to Eliminate Human Antibiotics from Broiler Chicken Flocks by 2017. Tyson. News Release. April 28, 2015. ir.tyson.com/investor-relations/news-releases/news-releases-details/2015/Tyson-Foods-Strives-to-Eliminate-Human-Antibiotics-From-Broiler-Chicken-Flocks-by-2017/default.aspx
Lisa Baertlein, P.J. Huffstutter. "McDonald’s Is Removing Human Antibiotics From Its U.S. Chicken Supply." Huffington Post. March 4, 2015. www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/04/mcdonalds-antibiotics_n_6800030.html;
MacKensy Lunsford. "No Antibiotics Ever: Chick-fil-A’s Commitment Charts New Territory." The Chicken Wire. August 11, 2016. thechickenwire.chick-fil-a.com/Inside-Chick-fil-A/No-Antibiotics-Ever-Chick-fil-As-Commitment-Charts-New-Territory
Jacob Bunge. "Subway Plans to Eliminate All Antibiotics from Its Meat Supplies." The Wall Street Journal. October 20, 2015. www.wsj.com/articles/subway-plans-to-eliminate-all-antibiotics-from-its-meat-supplies-1445360542
Jacob Bunge. "Perdue to Eliminate Antibiotics in Some Chicken Products." The Wall Street Journal. February 26, 2016. www.wsj.com/articles/perdue-to-eliminate-antibiotics-in-some-chicken-products-1456491783
Combating Antibiotic Resistance. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm092810.htm
Alexander Fleming. Penicillin. Nobel Lecture. December 11, 1945. www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1945/fleming-lecture.pdf
"Antimicrobial resistance. Global report on surveillance." World Health Organization. Geneva, Switzerland. 2014. www.who.int/drugresistance/documents/surveillancereport/en/
Dina Fine Maron. "WHO Moves to Contain Superbugs on the Farm." Scientific American. November 7, 2017. www.scientificamerican.com/article/who-moves-to-contain-superbugs-on-the-farm
Everly Macario, Sc.D.
In 2004, Everly Macario’s son, Simon Sol Sparrow, who was healthy until 1½ years of age, died very suddenly. It was not until a couple of months later that the cause of Simon’s death was confirmed to be community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA), an antibiotic-resistant bacterium. Everly’s goals include raising awareness of antibiotic resistance, making the term “MRSA” as familiar a household term as AIDS, and serving as a catalyst for simple steps we can all take to reduce the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in both humans and animals. Everly has a doctorate in public health from Harvard and is committed to the fight to save antibiotics, on both a personal and professional level.
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