Supermoms Vs. Superbugs
Everly Macario lost her 18-month old son, Simon, in 2004 after he contracted an antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus. It took an autopsy to determine the exact cause of his death; his lungs looked like Swiss cheese from the bacteria. When Macario was notified, she was bewildered.
“When the doctors first told me, I just didn’t understand,” Macario recalls. “I felt insane because I didn’t understand how he got it. They explained that one tends to get infected in a cut or a boil. But Simon had no cuts, no rashes, no boils. I know now that he may have touched an object with MRSA on it and then put his fingers in his mouth. But I just couldn’t fathom how it could be possible.”
Macario is the kind of mom who would be expected to have a clue about these things; she holds a doctorate in public health from Harvard University, although her work was focused on lifestyle behaviors and chronic disease. After her son’s death from methicillin-resistant Staph, or MRSA, Macario went on to found the MRSA Research Center at the University of Chicago and later became part of an advocacy group associated with the Pew Charitable Trusts known as Supermoms Against Superbugs. On Tuesday, the
ninth anniversary of the day that Simon fell ill, Macario (above) met with Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and others on Capitol Hill and at the White House to talk about limiting the use of antibiotics in livestock.
Drug-resistant bacteria, like the MRSA that killed Macario’s son, have become increasingly prevalent in the United States in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 70,000 people die from drug-resistant infections annually, and the roster of bacteria that show signs of becoming more resistant to drugs includes common ailments such as gonorrhea and tuberculosis.
This is happening as antibiotics have become ubiquitous -- nowhere more so than among factory-raised animals intended for meat consumption. Nearly 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used to raise livestock, administered in low doses in order to spur growth and allow the animals to endure strenuous factory conditions.
When confronted with low doses of antibiotics like those given to healthy livestock, bacteria can survive and adapt, developing resistance to those drugs and others. Research based on genetic analysis shows that those bacteria can jump from humans to animals, become resistant to antibiotics in the livestock, and then travel back to humans again.
What’s worse, government data released in February show that the amount of meat contaminated with antibiotic resistant bacteria is burgeoning: from 2002 to 2011, there was a 48 percent jump in the amount of antibiotic-resistant salmonella found in raw chicken. Analysis of the data by the Environmental Working Group shows that the problem is widespread -- 81 percent of ground turkey and 69 percent of the pork chops sold in supermarkets was found to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
As OnEarth reported more than two years ago:
Such respected bodies as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the World Health Organization all identified low-dose antibiotics as the reason antibiotic-resistant bacteria were proliferating in humans and animals. And the FDA -- which is charged with protecting the health of Americans -- failed to act, only going so far as to issue a “Draft Guidance” report and a draft "Action Plan" proposing voluntary guidelines. These suggestions have done nothing to stem the deluge of unnecessary antibiotics through the spigot of agribusiness.
Since then, FDA regulation has languished, and legislation proposed in 2011 to limit antibiotics, put forward by Congresswoman Slaughter, has been waylaid in congressional subcommittees. In response to a lawsuit filed by NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), last year a federal court ordered the FDA to take action regarding antibiotic use in livestock, but the agency appealed the ruling.
Still, there has been progress, as concerns about the impact of factory farming and antibiotic use have prompted some farmers to change the way they raise livestock. After nearly being killed by a drug-resistant bacteria himself, Missouri’s Russ Kremer (profiled this month by OnEarth) started an antibiotic-free cooperative that includes 60 local farmers and supplies the likes of Whole Foods and Chipotle.
Macario believes that keeping antibiotics effective for human use will require more farmers like Kremer, along with consumers who choose to buy antibiotic-free meat. “To this day I don’t understand why more people aren’t aware of antibiotic resistance,” Macario says. “I don’t know why people aren’t freaking out about the fact that we’re nearly at a post-antibiotic era.”
Images: Edmund Yeo and Pew Charitable Trust