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Opinion: Time for action on antibiotics

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It’s time to get serious about curbing the overuse of antibiotics — in farm animals as well as people.

The Centers for Disease Control recently confirmed a link between routine use of antibiotics in livestock and growing bacterial resistance that is killing at least 23,000 people a year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

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It wasn’t so long ago that common infections were often deadly. The return of that time is closer than people realize.

Imagine a world where much of modern-day medicine cannot be practiced: Organ transplants, joint replacements, cancer therapies and the use of catheters, respirators and other invasive procedures and devices would be impossible because of the risk of infection.

The Centers for Disease Control is calling for urgent steps to scale back the use of antibiotics, or risk going back to an era when common bacterial infections of the urinary tract, bloodstream, respiratory system and skin routinely killed and maimed.

In some ways, we’re already there: Along with the annual fatalities, the CDC report estimated at least 2 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur each year.

And that’s only in hospitals, it doesn’t include cases from dialysis centers, nursing homes and other medical settings.

At least 70 percent of all antibiotics in the United States are used to speed growth of farm animals or to prevent diseases among animals raised in feedlots.

Routine low doses administered to large numbers of animals provide ideal conditions for microbes to develop resistance.

Widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture has resulted in increased resistance in infections in humans, the CDC reports.

The pharmaceutical and livestock industries have long disputed any linkage. But the report called for phasing out such uses.

Patients who insist on antibiotic treatments are another big problem, according to the Chronicle. The report said half of antibiotic use in humans is unnecessary.

Patients too-often demand antibiotics and feel their doctor has not done a good job if they don’t get a prescription.

The link between overuse of antibiotics in livestock and microbial resistance has been suspected since the 1960s, but Congress, at the behest of the pharmaceutical and livestock industries, has blocked efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to scale back their use.

The agency in April 2012 asked drugmakers to voluntarily stop using antibiotics to promote growth in animals, but has not issued final regulations. The agency does not plan any restrictions on routine low doses to prevent infections in animals.

One solution is to change the way commercial livestock is raised: They have to be fed the drugs because of their crowded conditions. Too many animals in a confined space leads to illnesses that could be avoided through old-fashioned outdoor farming methods.

That means consumers will pay more for meat products, but that may be the price that needs to be paid to save antibiotics for human use.

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