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Can Congress now take on antibiotic resistance?

As a child, U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) lost her sister Virginia to pneumonia. Deeply affected by this loss, she chose to pursue degrees in microbiology and public health. Since 1999, Slaughter has put her knowledge in these fields to work in efforts to pass legislation designed to curb a frightening increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. With public sentiment shifting on this topic, does she finally have a shot?
In March, Slaughter reintroduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA). The main target of this legislation is the factory-farm system, which continues to rely heavily on antibiotics, despite growing concern about their role in creating antibiotic-resistant pathogens—and the global health crisis that these pathogens could create.
A report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from last year found that "at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.\" A report by the UK government predicts that "by 2050, antimicrobial resistant infections will kill 10 million people across the world—more than the current toll from cancer."
According to Slaughter, PAMTA "would save eight critical classes of antibiotics from being routinely fed to healthy animals, and would reserve them only for sick humans and sick animals."
There has been some movement in addressing antibiotic resistance in recent years. Last year, for example, President Obama issued an executive order aimed at curbing antibiotic resistance. And the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also have enacted recent policy changes, including monitoring the use of antibiotics in agriculture, educating farmers about the problem of antibiotic resistance, and asking pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily change indications for antibiotics use for growth promotion in animals.
But many critics—including Slaughter—point out that these developments lack regulatory teeth. In particular, they say the agency hasn't done enough to close the "loophole" that allows fairly unrestricted use of antibiotics in livestock. "Trusting a voluntary policy that lets industry police itself will not bring about real change," noted Slaughter in a recent news article.
Although previous versions of this bill have failed to gain much traction, this current iteration has 78 co-sponsors in Congress, has been endorsed by 450 advocacy groups, and has the support of 50 cities that have passed resolutions endorsing the bill. On the other side, however, are lobbyists for the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries. Despite scientific evidence and a CDC report to the contrary, the American Farm Bureau claims that "antibiotic use in animals has not been scientifically linked to increases in human antibiotic resistance.\" The pharmaceutical industry has spent a lot of money opposing PAMTA but has been more opaque about why. In an interview, Slaughter noted that the last time PAMTA was introduced, 88 percent of the money spent on this issue funded lobbying against reforms.
It may be that Slaughter will have better luck with another bill she plans to reintroduce. The Delivering Antimicrobial Transparency Act (DATA), which was previously sponsored by retired Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), would "require drug manufacturers to obtain and provide better information to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on how their antimicrobial drugs are used in the food-producing animals for which they are approved" and would "require large-scale producers of poultry and livestock to submit data to FDA detailing the type and amount of antibiotics contained in the feed given to their animals."
There seem to be few arguments against tracking these data, and President Obama included similar measures in his recently released National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.
Given the pushback from industry, however, both PAMTA and DATA probably need more public support to be viable. As Slaughter says, \"If we want to prevent a nightmarish post-antibiotic future, citizens of this country need to speak up and demand that their leaders enact enforceable, verifiable limits on the use of antibiotics on the farm."

Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not necessarily the opinions of AAAS, its officers, general members, and/or AAAS MemberCentral department or staff.

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Summer Allen