May 18, 2012

The Antibiotic Resistance Problem Gets Some Traction

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Rep. Slaughter with Lawrence and Price, Pushing for PAMTA | March 2012

For years, we public health workers and scientists have been dogged by the problem of how to engage the general public with the problem of antibiotic resistance. It’s a nuanced and complicated problem, and it doesn’t boil down easily for the media. On top of that, the very powerful beef, pork, and poultry industries spend a lot of money to publicly deny the facts, misrepresent the data, and confuse the issue.

But now we’ve got mothers on the job.

As the maternal gaze shifts to this problem, I think we’ll see some progress on solving it. Three recent developments give me hope.

The first is an event known as “Supermoms Against Superbugs,” which took place on May 15 in Washington. Sponsored by The Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics, this event brought together mothers from across the country to meet with governmental and public health leaders to discuss the best ways to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics. The event was an activity of Moms for Antibiotic Awareness, which is putting pressure on FDA to eliminate antibiotic misuse from the industrialized food animal production system.

One of the leaders of Moms for Antibiotic Awareness is Everly Macario, who founded the MRSA Research Center in Chicago. She lost her son at age one-and-a-half when he succumbed to a community-associated MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infection that could not be treated successfully. Dr. Macario has a doctorate degree in public health from Harvard University, making her an ideal spokeswoman for this issue. (For a video of her story, click here.) Thanks to mobilization by her and other mothers, the Supermoms Against Superbugs event received national media attention; ABC News’s headline was, “How Cheap Meat Practices Beef Up Superbugs Like MRSA.”

The second thing I find encouraging is a feature story in the current issue of Redbook, a magazine whose target audience is mothers and homemakers. This well-written article, titled “Antibiotics Are Not Candy,” by Erin Zammett Ruddy, lays out the problem, the risks, and the solutions; number two on the list of solutions, right after “Use antibiotics correctly,” is “Buy meat labeled ‘raised without antibiotics,’” and number five on the list urges support of U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter’s bill, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, known around here as PAMTA. (Our most recent blogposts on PAMTA can be read here and here.) The Redbook article dedicates an entire page to an infographic titled “How Farms Contribute to Superbugs,” and is informed by two public health experts and advocates, whom are also colleagues of ours. Gail Hansen (Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming) is quoted about farming practices, and Lance Price, PhD (Translational Genomics Research Center, and former CLF Fellow), delivers the sobering news about what happens when a UTI infection isn’t stopped and progresses to a kidney and then blood infection: “Blood infections have a 40 percent mortality rate. You can basically flip a coin to see whether you’ll live or die.”

The third thing I’d like to mention, albeit briefly, because it does not warrant a lot of attention, is an advertisement paid for by the National Pork Producers Council. The ad ran in Roll Call, a Washington-based paper, on the same day as the Supermoms event. It was rife with half-baked science and misleading statements. The most laughable claim in this full-page ad (which must have cost them a pretty penny) is that antibiotic use on farms isn’t a problem because, “if there was going to be an epidemic of resistance … it would have occurred by now.” Well, it has occurred by now! Despite the NPPC’s misinformation campaign, I’m cheered to know that they are on the defensive. It makes sense that they’re feeling the heat—there is only so long that they can keep pulling the wool over the public’s eyes.

I’m glad the moms are engaged in this fight. When it comes to managing tantrums, sussing out lies, dealing with terrorists, and doling out justice, they are the closest things we have to experts.

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