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Protecting human health

Friday, March 15, 2013 - Updated: 4:31 PM

A soldier shot in World War I may not have been killed by the initial wound. Yet there was a good chance a subsequent infection would take his life. By World War II, that soldier had a better chance of survival due to the wide availability of antibiotics. These miracles of modern medicine fight infections and save lives.

But the vast majority of antibiotics developed to treat people are given to the animals people eat. Farmers add low doses to feed and water to prevent disease in crowded livestock facilities. The drugs also promote growth. A bigger cow, pig, turkey or chicken translates into more money for producers.

How does this widespread use in animals affect humans? It is killing us, a growing number of scientists say.

Bacteria are adaptable little guys. Over time, they develop a resistance to commonly used antibiotics. Those more resilient bacteria then move from animals to humans. The bacteria causing everything from urinary tract infections to pneumonia in humans are more difficult to treat with common antibiotics.

Tens of thousands of Americans are killed each year by drug-resistant infections. It costs the country's health care system billions of dollars.

So what should be done? Obviously, there is a desperate need to develop new antibiotics. People have heard by now they should avoid overusing and misusing these drugs, which can contribute to resistance. But the extensive use of antibiotics in agriculture -- and its culpability in a human health crisis -- cannot be ignored. Science isn't ignoring it. Neither can Washington lawmakers.

At the very least, Congress should require more reporting on what drugs are being used on what animals so scientists can better track the impact on human health.

It's time for this country to care as much about protecting human health as growing big cows or chickens.

-- The Des Moines Register


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