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Super Bugs Pose Bigger Threat than SARS

Antibiotic Resistance Reaching Dangerous New High

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Blaser says an antibiotic prescribed for an ear infection doesn't just affect the ear, but it affects all the bacteria in the body, which gives them an opportunity to grow resistant to future doses of antibiotics.

In addition, the food industry has been feeding animals low doses of antibiotics to help them gain weight, not to treat infection, since the 1950s.

"About half of all antibiotic use in the United States is in the food industry for growth promotion," says Blaser. "Countries in Europe have banned this phenomenon, but we have not."

Blaser says animals that are fed antibiotics eventually become resistant to the drugs and can potentially pass this antibiotic resistance on to people who eat their meat.

He says research shows that resistance to common antibiotics, such as fluoroquinolones, has emerged in regions at the same time that livestock animals are given the antibiotics for growth promotion. And recent studies from Europe suggest that when use of antibiotics for growth promotion is eliminated, antibiotic resistance in humans is reduced.

Experts at the briefing say the threat of super bugs is further compounded by the fact that the development of new antibiotics is not keeping pace with the rate at which the antibiotic-resistant bacteria is emerging. Of the 89 new drugs approved in 2002 by the FDA, none were antibiotics and only five of the more than 400 new drugs currently in the pipeline are antibiotics.

Michael Ryback, PharmD, professor of pharmacology and medicine at Wayne State University in Michigan, says the problem has gotten to the point that some have even suggested developing new classes of antibiotics and putting them on the shelf so there might be something to turn to in the future.

In the meantime, Ryback says the best defense against any infectious disease --whether it's caused by a virus like SARS or bacteria - is to avoid getting sick in the first place by practicing good hygiene and a healthy lifestyle.

"Staying healthy and keeping your immune system viable is your greatest defense against all illnesses," Ryback tells WebMD. "Antibiotics and vaccines are only adjuncts."

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