News item: Federal health officials reported that at least two million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections annually, and about 23,000 people die.
Overpresription of antibiotics is a major contributor, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So is preventive treatment of poultry and other food animals, which accounts for about 70 percent of antibiotic usage in the United States.
News item: An especially virulent salmonella outbreak was traced to chicken from Foster Farms, a Merced County-based poultry supplier.
Hundreds of people have become ill, almost half have been hospitalized, and the CDC said several antibiotic-resistant strains of the disease are involved.
News item: Lobbyists for farmers and pharmaceutical manufacturers have stymied federal efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics to promote growth and prevent illness in food animals, academic researchers reported Tuesday.
The report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future is itself an assessment of what's happened in the five years since a panel of experts warned that excessive agricultural use of antibiotics presented a growing threat to human health and recommended a ban on non-therapeutic use in food animals.
"There has been an appalling lack of progress," said Robert S. Lawrence, a physician and the director of the Center for a Livable Future.
Legislation to restrict antibiotic use has been bottled up in Congress for more than a decade, and proposed Food and Drug Administration regulations have been watered down to the point that they would be practically meaningless.
All this inaction is worse than short-sighted. It's irresponsible, verging on negligent.
Antibiotics truly are life-saving drugs. Before they were developed in the early 20th century, infections routinely cost people limbs and even their lives. Besides ordinary infections, they're now vital for organ transplants and other complex procedures, protecting against post-surgical infections.
With overuse, however, antibiotic-resistant germs are emerging with, as the CDC warned, "potentially catastrophic consequences."
That's not all.
Antibiotics aren't a big profit center, so pharmaceutical companies are focusing their research on more lucrative drugs. Only two or three companies are presently focused on antibiotic research, compared to 25 or more a quarter-century ago, according to a report broadcast this week by PBS' "Frontline."
As details of the salmonella outbreak emerged, public health officials and poultry producers urged people to handle meat carefully and cook it fully. That's fine advice — but we can only hope it's being followed in restaurants and other kitchens besides our own.
This is a place where government can and should do more. Unfortunately, Congress hasn't shown any greater interest in funding research than it has in restricting the use of antibiotics in food animals. Action is needed on both fronts.
Without it, people will die from infections that once were easily treated with antibiotics.