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In the Bid to Save Antibiotics, Are Drug Companies Allies or Enablers?

By Jeremy Flood
Tax & Budget Digital Campaigner

In hospitals across the country, the rise of antibiotic resistance hangs like a specter over practitioners. Every new case of a drug-resistant infection brings with it a quiet anxiety -- the era of antibiotics could be nearing its end, and more than a half century of medical advancement may go down with it. Just this month, a woman in Nevada was killed by a superbug resistant to every single antibiotic available in the United States.

What once sounded like the plot of some dystopian science-fiction novel now has public health professionals reeling, and after a U.N. summit on antibiotic resistance last September, the issue has further entered the international consciousness. But while many hospitals have begun developing antibiotic stewardship programs and adopting strict policies in clinical settings, the routine overuse of antibiotics in meat production continues to quietly thrive as a multi-billion dollar industry.

Roughly seventy percent of medically-important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are for use on poultry and livestock. We sell more antibiotics to make things like burgers and chicken strips than we do to care for sick people. But by giving antibiotics on a routine basis to healthy animals to prevent disease and promote growth, these farming operations are creating the conditions for drug-resistant bacteria to flourish, potentially rendering many antibiotics useless.

One might hope that the drug companies would be our allies. In other words, to keep their drugs working (and selling) for the long-term, they would oppose the overuse of antibiotics on livestock. One might even hope they would support laws or regulations to stop the misuse of their medicines. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case.

Pharmaceutical companies certainly  know that pumping antibiotics into bacteria-rich environments could threaten the viability of the very product they sell, and yet they still provide the meat industry with around 30 million pounds of antibiotics every year. It begs the question -- why are they sabotaging the long-term effectiveness of their own products?

We’re not in their shoes to answer, but we do know that the pharmaceutical industry makes a lot of money from these sales in the short term. Consider Zoetis Inc., a major supplier of antibiotics to factory farms. The company made roughly $1.3 billion on such sales in 2015 alone, and with growing demand for meat increasing around the world, analysts expect global antibiotics sales to reach $4.1 billion by 2018.

The World Health Organization has stated, “Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.” Right now, we need pharma to act like stakeholders in the effort to keep their drugs working, even if that means sacrificing short-term profits for long-term stability. Otherwise, the industry is enabling the systematic misuse of their products, and we can’t let that continue to happen.

That’s why we’re calling on the CEOs of the top pharmaceutical companies to commit to stop selling antibiotics to industrial farms for the purposes of growth promotion and disease prevention. Sign our petition, and tell Big Pharma to put our health first.

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