There's Hope for Slowing Antibiotic Resistance
The result of all this overuse: increased numbers of antibiotic-resistant infections.
In fact, there's been a significant increase in the number of streptococcal -- strep -- infections resistant to multiple antibiotics, according to a CDC study published in the NEJM. "We're greatly concerned about that data," Besser says.
"That bacterial strain is responsible for bacterial meningitis [an infection of the lining of the brain], pneumonia, and is the leading cause of ear infections in children," he says. "It's responsible for an enormous amount of disease. It's a serious public health problem."
There's also been a significant rise in Salmonella food poisoning with strains resistant to the drug most commonly used to treat children with severe Salmonella infections. Numerous infections caused by the bacteria Campylobacter have been found resistant to a common class of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones, used to treat infections in chickens.
A "supergerm" form of the bacteria Enterococcus -- which invades surgical wounds, causing potentially deadly abdominal, urinary tract, and heart valve infections -- also has developed. Although the bacteria are resistant to virginiamycin, an antibiotic also widely used in the treatment of food-producing animals for about 26 years, some of these infections can be treated with another antibiotic, vancomycin.
It's a frightening issue -- but progress is being made to bring things under control.
About 30% fewer pediatricians are writing antibiotic prescriptions for children's infections, Besser tells WebMD. "That corresponds with increased awareness across the country of the problem of antibiotic resistance." Besser heads the CDC's nationwide campaign aimed at appropriate use of antibiotics.
One company -- Abbott Laboratories -- has voluntarily withdrawn a fluoroquinolone antibiotic for use in poultry, Mellon says. "We're hoping that Bayer [producer of Baytril, the other fluoroquinolone used in poultry] will do the same," she says.
Such actions have significant implications for this whole serious problem, Mellon tells WebMD. "It says that the FDA, after a 20-year hiatus, is back in action in animal antibiotics," she says. "We're delighted. Our hope, of course, is that this is the beginning of their efforts -- not the only cancellation that the agency undertakes."
The FDA also has proposed that labels on antibiotics contain information about the emergence of drug-resistant bacterial strains -- as a reminder to physicians to use them only when a bacterial infection is either "proven or strongly suspected."