Public health professor urges action on overuse of antibiotics in farm animals

Media Credit: Courtesy of Lance Price

Lance Price, a professor of environmental and occupational health, said he helped compile a list of policy recommendations over the course of about eight months to curtail the use of antibiotics in livestock.

A professor in the public health school wants the Trump administration to take action to reduce the potentially unsafe amount of antibiotics given to farm animals.

Lance Price, a professor of environmental and occupational health, said he helped compile a list of policy recommendations over the course of about eight months to curtail the use of antibiotics in livestock and published his findings last month. He said the overuse of antibiotics can lead to drug-resistant bacteria that poses a serious threat to human health and he feared that President Donald Trump’s administration would not provide the funding to study it.

“We were surprised by the outcome of the election, like so many people, and we weren’t sure how this would be received but we thought it was really important to go ahead and put it out there,” Price said. “Regardless of who’s running the government this is what we should be doing.”

The paper was published last month and focuses on the dangers of antibiotic use in food animals. The report’s authors said giving farm animals drugs to promote growth or treat disease in crowded farms was a major health hazard.

If antibiotics are used often enough, potentially dangerous bacteria can become resistant to the drugs and as a result can infect animals raised for human consumption, the report found.

The report included 11 key policy recommendations including phasing out the routine use of medically important antibiotics and stopping the use of antibiotics for livestock if the drug is no longer effective.

Price said 11 other experts including physicians, researchers, public health advocates and veterinarians formed a commission to work on the project. The group came together to discuss past literature on antibiotic use and determine the guidelines they would ultimately present to the new administration.

“In anticipation of an administration change about eight months ago, we decided we needed to come together and prepare a document that would help guide the next administration on what they should do to improve or sustain the utility of antibiotics,” Price said.

Price said his interest in antibiotic use in livestock stemmed from working as a teenager on his family’s ranch in central Texas during the summer and observing changes in agricultural practices overtime. He said the use of antibiotics to encourage animal growth was most concerning.

Price then received his master’s in biology from Northern Arizona University and a Ph.D in environmental health science at the Johns Hopkins University.

Based on his experience co-chairing the commission and studying the topic for more than a decade, Price said he found certain current events relating to antibiotic resistance to be more jarring than others.

One instance in particular had to do with a mobile resistance gene, or a piece of DNA that makes bacteria resistant to a drug, he said. This gene had the ability to make bacteria immune to one of the most potent types of antibiotics, which allowed bacteria to thrive in animal hosts.

This gene was first observed in Chinese livestock and became a major concern when the antibiotic resistance spread to humans, Price said.

“This was the first time that we saw resistance to what we would consider one of our last drugs for treating some super resistant bacteria,” he said. “It was kind of a little bit of a slap in the face of just how wrong things can go when you use antibiotics like this.”

Price said that under President Barack Obama’s administration, research on antibiotic resistance was made a priority through federal funding for research projects. He said he feared Trump, who proposed cuts to critical sources of research funding, wouldn’t make the issue a top concern.

Price said that antibiotic resistance was a “public health crisis” second only to climate change in terms of threats it poses to the public.

“We really need to be pushing aggressive legislation to curb superbugs, to curb antibiotic resistant infections,” he said. “The main way we can do that is by eliminating unnecessary use of antibiotics.”

Price added that even if the Trump administration doesn’t follow the recommendations, other policymakers might find it and take actions themselves.

“If you have an administration that doesn’t respect science, then it’s hard to know what’s going to happen,” he said.

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