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The Centers for Disease Control has released a new report detailing the sources of drug-resistant bacteria.
Though many suspect that large farms would be the biggest source, hospitals are a huge contributor to the problem.
The CDC describes the threat from drug resistant bacteria as “potentially catastrophic” if it is not addressed.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention has just issued its antibiotic resistance threat report for 2013. It's the first ever snapshot of the price Americans are paying in their health for the increase in germs that are resistant to antibiotics. The agency says every year more than 2 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections in the U.S. and at least 23,000 people die from those infections.
Many more die from other diseases that were made worse by antibiotic resistant infections. The problem comes primarily from the overuse of antibiotics in two settings: hospitals and animal farming. Here to tell us more is Carey Goldberg, a health reporter at our home stations, WBUR. Hi, Carey, and welcome back.
CAREY GOLDBERG, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha, thank you.
PFEIFFER: And Carey, for people who aren't already well-schooled in the problem of antibiotic resistance, remind us what it is and why it's such a concern.
GOLDBERG: Sure. So the idea is that every time you use an antibiotic to kill a bunch of germs, you run the risk that some of them, the strongest will survive and that that can lead to the evolution of germs that are resistant or immune to that drug that you used. So the more you use an antibiotic, the more you may devalue it for the future.
Of course, you often have to use an antibiotic, like to fight an infection, but the concern is that we also use antibiotics when we don't have to.
PFEIFFER: Like when you have an illness that's a virus which antibiotics aren't effective against.
GOLDBERG: Right. Don't ask your doctor for antibiotics if you're coughing, unless you really need them. Anyway, here's the CDC director, Tom Frieden.
TOM FRIEDEN: The really most acute problem is in hospitals and the most resistant organisms in hospitals are emerging in those settings because of poor antimicrobial stewardship among humans.
GOLDBERG: So that poor antimicrobial stewardship means that we just aren't sparing enough with our use of antibiotics.
PFEIFFER: And I like that line, poor antimicrobial stewardship. We should be prescribing them less and completing our antibiotic regimes when we do have to take them.
PFEIFFER: All right. So that's humans. But we're also hearing a lot about antibiotic use in farm animals. And, of course, a lot of times you see labels on meat at the grocery store that say no antibiotics on them. So tell us about that front.
GOLDBERG: Right. So farmers give low doses of antibiotics in the feed to chickens and pigs and cows and they're trying to keep the animals healthy in their crowded conditions or help them grow faster. Now, there's debate over the extent that farm antibiotic use adds to the resistance problem, but there sure is a lot of that use, over 70 percent of American antibiotics go to animals.
So this new CDC report comes out very clearly against it. It says a lot of farm antibiotic use is inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.
PFEIFFER: That's a pretty harsh conclusion. But this report doesn't actually call for an outright ban on using antibiotics routinely on healthy animals, is that right?
GOLDBERG: Right. It doesn't and that's bringing some criticism from food safety advocates, that they are saying that the CDC isn't going far enough. So Sarah Klein is a food safety attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit watchdog group.
SARAH KLEIN: For food safety advocates, the CDC's report was kind of a case of speaking softly and carrying a small twig.
GOLDBERG: So she says the CDC should've been much more directive about what to do and about how dire the situation is and she has some advice for consumers. She says that if you want to minimize your exposure to antibiotic resistant germs, you should buy meats that are labeled either USDA certified organic or raised without antibiotics, USDA process certified.
PFEIFFER: Carey Goldberg is a health reporter and co-host of WBUR's Common Health blog. Thanks, Carey.
GOLDBERG: You're welcome, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.