How Cheap Meat Practices Beef Up Superbugs Like MRSA

PHOTO: Simon Sparrow, 1, died from a MRSA infection in 2004. His mother has since been on a mission to raise awareness of superbugs.
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As 1½-year-old Simon Sparrow lay dying in a hospital in April 2004, doctors were perplexed as to what was causing his illness.

"None of the health care professionals at the University of Chicago had any clue as to why he died," Simon's mother, Everly Macario, recalls. "From the moment he got strange symptoms to when he died was 24 hours."

Tests following Simon's death revealed that he'd succumbed to an overwhelming infection caused by a highly antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria known as methicilliin-resistant Staph aureus, or MRSA. Despite having a doctorate in public health from Harvard, Macario had never heard of MRSA or its potentially deadly consequences.

Since her son's death, Macario has made it her mission to raise awareness of these deadly infections. On Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Macario joined a group of concerned mothers, health care providers, farmers and chefs in a roundtable meeting to raise awareness of the growing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

The "Supermoms Against Superbugs" event, co-sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, is meant to raise awareness of the link between antibiotic overuse in farm animals and an increase in antibiotic resistant "superbug" infections in humans.

MRSA is among a growing number of bacterial strains that are highly resistant to antibiotics and are very difficult to treat when they cause serious infections. According to infectious disease experts, the increase in the number of superbugs over the past three decades comes from the overuse of antibiotics -- not only in humans but also in farm animals. All told, livestock consume nearly 25 million pounds of antibiotics versus the 3 million pounds used in humans each year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And an estimated 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are given to healthy farm animals -- not to treat disease but to promote animal growth, allow animals to live closer together and decrease the amount of time it takes to raise an animal and send it to market.

Superbugs can be the unfortunate side effect of this process. When farm animals eat the antibiotics placed in their food, it exposes the bacteria that live in their gut and skin to low levels of the drug. Some of these bugs survive this low-level assault and go on to develop resistance to the antibiotics. The resistant superbugs can then spread to humans either by direct contact with farm animals or by eating contaminated meat from the animals.

Once superbugs such as MRSA, E. coli and salmonella escape the farm, they can spread their antibiotic resistance to other bacteria that also cause infections in humans.

Dr. James Johnson, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, says this is a big problem.

"Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness against bacteria," Johnson says. "New antibiotics are not being developed at a fast enough rate, and we have fewer treatment options for infected patients."

Superbugs can cause a variety of diseases in humans, including urinary tract infections, blood stream infections, meningitis and pneumonia. The most vulnerable patients tend to be the very young, chronically ill, hospitalized patients and the elderly.

Johnson says that despite the increase in the number of superbugs, infection tends to be a "somewhat uncommon occurrence." When it does occur, however, the infection is "more difficult to treat, more costly and more likely to lead to death in severe cases."

What Needs to Be Done About Superbugs

As the superbug threat grows, lawmakers and experts alike say the solution to the problem is clear -- but not necessarily easy to get going.

"Since 1977, the Food and Drug Administration has known that regularly feeding antibiotics to healthy animals is reducing the effectiveness of these drugs," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., in a statement to ABC News. "And a recent study conclusively linked the routine use of antibiotics in food animals with the rise of MRSA, which now kills more people than AIDS.

"If that's not a public health crisis, I don't know what is."

One approach, doctors say, is to reduce antibiotic use in both humans and animals -- essentially using them only to treat disease, rather than for disease prevention. Slaughter, who is also the only microbiologist in Congress, has in recent years introduced legislation that would regulate antibiotic use in animal feed. So far, this bill has not passed into law.

"There is now general recognition that antibiotics merely for livestock growth improvement has significant implications for public health safety," says Dr. Paul Auwaerter, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Proponents of feeding antibiotics to healthy livestock argue, however, that the process is necessary to ensure animal health and to maintain efficiency. Eliminating antibiotics from feed would decrease the number of animals meat producers can raise, and so increase meat prices.

Data from the National Research Council estimates that a ban on antibiotic use in animal feed would cost a family of four an additional 34 to 75 cents per week for meat. Critics, on the other hand, cite the total cost to U.S. households from superbug infections. According to a news release from the advocacy group Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, these costs amount to $35 billion when factoring in lost wages, hospital stays and premature deaths nationwide.

Livestock farmers Maria and Ron Rosmann of Harlan, Iowa, also attended the Supermoms roundtable. They agree that it is time for a change in the industry.

"I feel very guilty about deaths resulting from this," Ron Rosmann says. "It shouldn't be. It doesn't have to be. If producers would change their production so that animals had more space and room to go outside, that would make a big difference."

"We have cheap meat in the U.S.," Maria Rosmann says. "The fear that is put into the consumer of how it will affect their pocketbooks is very real, but there is no fear put into the consumer's mind about what you are feeding your family."

Macario says there is a solution to the problem of increased antibiotic resistance. "I want to make sure that people don't shut down or feel like the world is going to end. Not all issues are solvable, but this one is."

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