Bayer's Ag Sales of Anthrax Antibiotic Threaten Public Health

Bayer's Ag Sales of Anthrax
Antibiotic Threaten Public Health

November 3, 2001

What If Cipro Stopped Working?

By ELLEN K. SILBERGELD and POLLY WALKER
The New York Times

ALTIMORE -- Cipro, despite its current fame for preventing and treating
anthrax, is in danger of becoming a casualty of what might be called the
post-antibiotic age. Bayer, the maker of Cipro, also sells a chemically
similar drug called Baytril, which is used in large-scale poultry production
worldwide. The widespread use of Baytril in chickens has already been shown
to decrease Cipro's effectiveness in humans for some types of infections.

Bayer recommends that Baytril be used only to treat infected poultry and
says it poses no threat to public health. But the use of antibiotics in
agriculture is part of a serious public health problem in the United States.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, as much as 70 percent of all
antibiotics produced in the United States are fed to healthy livestock for
"growth promotion" < in other words, to increase their weight for market.
Not only does this reduce their effectiveness in animals; it poses a real
danger to humans.

The discovery and use of antibiotics to treat human disease and save lives
is one of the greatest feats of modern medicine. Many of us are alive today
because of antibiotics. Just 60 years ago, the discovery of antibiotics
revolutionized medicine, tipping the balance in our favor against the sea of
pathogens that surrounds us. Now, with the very real threat of biological
terrorism, preserving the power of antibiotics is a matter of the highest
urgency.

Bacteria have always adapted to our new drugs faster and more efficiently
than we can adapt to their genetic changes. Through prudent use, we can
preserve the effectiveness of our drugs for use in treating human disease
while we search nature and chemistry for new defenses. Yet we are now
squandering this precious resource by using powerful antibiotics carelessly
for livestock and poultry < mostly for nontherapeutic reasons.

Agribusiness argues that nontherapeutic use of antibiotics is essential to
the continued supply of cheap food. But many countries have demonstrated
that food can be safely and efficiently produced without robbing the
medicine chest. In the European Union, the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics
in agriculture has been banned.

The use of antibiotics in food animal production increases the risks of
contracting drug-resistant infections from eating animal products. Despite a
national network for testing food, every year the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention reports incidents of food poisoning by drug-resistant
bacteria. In addition, using antibiotics in agriculture can result in
environmental pollution by both drugs and drug-resistant bacteria.

Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that drug-
resistant bacteria were present in meat purchased at supermarkets in the
Washington, D.C., area. An accompanying editorial recommended that the use
of nontherapeutic antibiotics in farm animals be prohibited.

We need better information and more government oversight in this arena.
Opinions differ on the amount of antibiotics currently used in animal
production. Creating a national tracking system to measure how much of each
antibiotic is used and for what purposes < as proposed by the Food and Drug
Administration < is a necessary first step. Mandatory reporting of
antibiotic use was discussed in January at meetings sponsored by the F.D.A.,
but no actual legislation or regulations have been proposed.

For Bayer, the maker of Baytril, the need for action is clear. The use of
Baytril falls into a gray area between growth promotion and treatment; it is
common practice in the poultry industry to add Baytril to drinking water
during the last weeks of a flock's life, even if no disease has been
diagnosed. Last year, the F.D.A. asked Bayer and Abbott Laboratories, the
two producers of the chicken drug, to withdraw their Cipro-like antibiotics
from agricultural use voluntarily. Abbott agreed. Bayer did not.

Bayer has committed itself to supporting our national efforts to protect the
public health by supplying Cipro at a reduced cost to the federal
government. Voluntarily withdrawing Baytril from the market would show that
the company is serious about its commitment to the public health.

Ellen K. Silbergeld is a professor of epidemiology at the University of
Maryland School of Medicine. Polly Walker is associate director of the John
Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.


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