For the fourth time in its history, the United Nations has elevated a health issue to crisis level.
The UN General Assembly held a high-level meeting earlier this week (Sept. 21) to address how antibiotics have become less useful when treating human illnesses caused by bacteria. In its 70 year history the General Assembly has called similar meetings to discuss HIV, the rise of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, and Ebola.
By pushing antibiotic resistance front-and-center as a global problem, the international body has acknowledged that some of the miracles of modern medicine—including the invention of penicillin and tetracyclines—are at risk of becoming ineffective. Already the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 23,000 people die in the US each year as a direct result of antibiotic resistance. Some of those deaths were from illnesses once easily treated with the drugs, including MRSA and some E. coli infections.
At the core of the crisis sits animal agriculture, which includes the some 9 billion food animals slaughtered in the US each year. For years, food companies and farmers have used antibiotics not only to treat sick animals*, but also to feed them a steady diet of the drugs to prevent illnesses.**
Public health advocacy groups have pushed on the federal government to crack down on how farmers use drugs, but the government has been slow to act in a meaningful way. Food companies are not especially transparent about what drugs are being used on different species and how they are being used, and the government mandates little be made public.
*A common occurrence due to the filthy conditions of factory farms.
**And as artificial growth promoters to make animals–and profits–grow bigger faster.