Anti-superbug actions too long in coming

The News Tribune The News TribuneDecember 17, 2013 

The Food and Drug Administration says there is no evidence that antibacterial chemicals used in liquid soaps, like this Dawn Ultra, and washes help prevent the spread of germs, and there is some evidence they may pose health risks.

KIICHIRO SATO/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Finally the Food and Drug Administration is taking action to address what threatens to become a major health disaster: the rise of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

Those bacteria — staph, strep and salmonella — kill at least 23,000 Americans each year. Scientists believe the overuse and abuse of antibiotics and anti-bacterial chemicals is a prime culprit behind development of superbugs, which have evolved to be resistant to them.

The Centers for Disease Control warned in September of “potentially catastrophic consequences” if drastic action isn’t taken to fight antibiotic abuse, including the inability to perform routine surgical procedures due to the threat of infection.

Now the FDA is taking some tentative action, but it remains to be seen how effective it will be because it affects economic interests with a deep, vested interest in maintaining the status quo: the livestock industry and the huge market for anti-bacterial soaps, body washes and other items.

Regarding anti-bacterial cleansers — which can be found in just about every American household — the FDA says 40 years of study has uncovered no evidence that they are any more effective than plain old soap and water, yet they likely contribute to the rise of drug-resistant germs. Evidence also suggests they may interfere with hormone levels and may be linked to increased allergies and other autoimmune conditions. (This is not the case with alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which the FDA says are safe.)

On Monday, the FDA announced that manufacturers will have to prove their “anti-bacterial” products are safe and more effective than soap and water. If they can’t, the products will have to be relabeled, reformulated or removed from the market.

As for the livestock industry, antibiotics are routinely used not only to prevent disease — try asking your doctor for a penicillin prescription to prevent illness — but to help animals gain weight quicker. It’s estimated that 80 percent of all antibiotics are used in the meat and poultry industries.

Now the FDA wants drug companies to voluntarily relabel their products so that farmers would no longer be allowed to use antibiotics to fatten their livestock. And farmers would need a veterinarian’s prescription in order to give animals drugs that are commonly used on humans.

Critics say both actions leave loopholes big enough to drive a herd through and that much antibiotic use could be avoided simply by providing cleaner, less densely packed facilities for animals.

The FDA hasn’t moved as aggressively as it should have on the superbug issue, but at least it’s starting to make some headway. Let’s hope it’s not a case of too little, too late.

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