Washington — The Centers for Disease Control on Monday confirmed a link between routine use of antibiotics in livestock and growing bacterial resistance that is killing at least 23,000 people a year.
The report is the first by the government to estimate how many people die annually of infections that no longer respond to antibiotics because of overuse in people and animals.
CDC Director Thomas Frieden called for urgent steps to scale back and monitor use, or risk reverting to an era when common bacterial infections of the urinary tract, bloodstream, respiratory system and skin routinely killed and maimed.
“We will soon be in a post-antibiotic era if we’re not careful,” Frieden said. “For some patients and some microbes, we are already there.”
The discovery of penicillin in 1928 transformed medicine. But because bacteria rapidly evolve to resist the drugs, and resistance is encouraged with each use, antibiotics are a limited resource.
2 million infections
Along with the annual fatalities, the report estimated at least 2 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur each year. Frieden said these are “minimal estimates” because they count only microbes that are resistant to multiple antibiotics and include only hospital infections, omitting cases from dialysis centers, nursing homes and other medical settings.
At least 70 percent of all antibiotics in the United States are used to speed growth of farm animals or to prevent diseases among animals raised in feedlots. Routine low doses administered to large numbers of animals provide ideal conditions for microbes to develop resistance.
“Widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture has resulted in increased resistance in infections in humans,” Frieden said.
The pharmaceutical and livestock industries have long disputed any such linkage. But the report called for phasing out such uses.
Steve Heilig, public health director for the San Francisco Medical Society, said the report “clearly implicates agriculture’s contribution to the problem.” The big question, he said, is whether leaders in agriculture and government “will finally listen to their own expert agency on this.”