By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD
March 27, 2015 -- The Obama administration is pledging to end the widespread practice of using antibiotics to boost the growth of animals that are raised for food in the U.S.
"The National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria" also directs the FDA to make meat producers get a veterinarian's okay in order to buy the drugs for other reasons in animals.
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The FDA had recommended those measures before, but it didn't require livestock producers to comply.
The new report gives the agency a year to set final changes to the labels of "medically important" antibiotics sold for animals being raised for food. The changes will make it illegal to sell these antibiotics without a vet's prescription.
The plan also includes new proposals intended to stem the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and speed new tests and treatments to people:
- The creation of new DNA databanks of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. These will serve as reference libraries to help disease detectives trace the sources of resistant infections. They'll help scientists develop new treatments, too.
- Changes to the designs of clinical trials, so that new drugs could be tested on patients even when outbreaks of these infections are sporadic and affect relatively small numbers of people.
- New requirements for hospitals to track and report their antibiotic use.
- Prize money to spur the development of tests that could help doctors quickly tell if an infection is caused by bacteria or viruses -- and if it is caused by bacteria, which drugs would work to kill them.
In an interview with WebMD, President Barack Obama called antibiotic resistance a pressing public health issue that is vital to our national security.
"They [antibiotics] save the lives of service members wounded in battle. They prevent infections in one community from spreading far and wide. They're also a critical defense against bio-terrorism. They are, quite simply, essential to the health of our people and people everywhere," he said.
He called on Congress to help fund the plan, but said the administration would act where it could to implement parts of it on its own. The plan will nearly double the amount of money spent on fighting antibiotic resistance to more than $1.2 billion.
"We can better protect our children and grandchildren from the reemergence of diseases and infections that the world conquered decades ago," Obama said.
An expert who reviewed the report says some of the most significant changes affect the ways antibiotics would be used in animals.
Many of the antibiotics used to treat human infections can be bought over the counter and in bulk by farmers, who add the drugs to animal feed to boost growth and prevent illness.
A report released in 2013 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) shows that about 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in animals that are raised for food. About three-quarters of those drugs are antibiotics that are also used for human health.
There's growing concern that the use of these drugs in livestock is contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance, where bacteria that cause human infections can no longer be killed by drugs available to treat them.
Earlier this month, McDonald's announced it would stop using chickens raised with antibiotics within the next 2 years.
"These are very important antibiotics to preserve for human medicine, but they're being squandered by excess use on the farm," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of Food Safety at CSPI.
DeWaal praises the proposed new restrictions and another pledge in the report to collect more info on the sales and use of antibiotics in animals. But the plan still has to be put into action, she cautions.
"This is certainly an important new document, but the real proof will be when the administration releases meaningful policy changes that address the meaningful overuse of antibiotics on the farm," she says.
The administration says it aims to slash the number of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant "superbug" bacteria by the year 2020 -- including a 50% decrease in the number of new cases of Clostridium difficile, or C. diff., and a 60% drop in the number of infections caused by carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE. CRE was the germ that sickened and killed patients at two California hospitals earlier this year, when they contaminated hard-to-clean surgical instruments.
The plan calls for closer tracking of where and when antibiotics are being used.
"Ideally, we'd be able to see in real-time where the cases of drug resistance are being reported, so we can take swift action," Obama said. "The same goes for rates of antibiotic use. If we can see where these drugs are being over-prescribed, we can target our interventions where they're needed most."
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