Last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a report that confirmed a connection between the routine use of antibiotics in livestock and a growing number of superbugs, such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), that are resistant to most antibiotics. According to the CDC, this growing bacterial resistance results in the deaths of at least 23,000 people a year and sickens 2 million more.
"I think the death toll is much higher than the CDC admits," he told Newsmax Health.
"There's no question that the antibiotics are affecting us, and they are affecting us in multiple ways," he said. "In addition to bugs that are resistant to antibiotics, we are seeing more problems with the immune system and more allergies, and rates of breast and prostate cancer are rising."
Antibiotics can be especially dangerous to hospital patients by killing good bacteria in the gut that protects them from dangerous bacteria, leaving them susceptible to potentially fatal infections with the bacterium Clostridium difficle, or C. diff.
"It's a multi-pronged problem," says Dr. Brownstein.
The CDC reported that part of the misuse of antibiotics is that physicians prescribe too many of them. Up to half are given unnecessarily or used incorrectly, such as prescribing an antibiotic to treat a viral infection.
The major misuse of antibiotics, however, is giving them on a regular basis to healthy livestock to prevent infections. Up to 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to farm animals.
"The farming industry relies on antibiotics to keep animals grown for food from getting infections," said Dr. Brownstein. "The animals live in such poor, crowded conditions that they get infections easily. The industry also uses antibiotics to fatten up the animals right before being sold."
This overuse of antibiotics, both in humans and animals, is responsible for breeding superbugs, such as MRSA, that are resistant to most common antibiotics and harm millions of Americans every year.
"We'd better take this report seriously, although it doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know," says Brownstein. "We should have taken it seriously years ago.
"When I was in med school, there were experts saying that the widespread use of antibiotics would come back to haunt us. There was no doubt then it would become a public health disaster, and it has."
It's essential that changes are made, says Brownstein, but they will have to be regulated by the federal government. It will be difficult, he says, because both the farm and pharmaceutical lobbies will put pressure on Congress to keep them from passing meaningful legislation.
What can you do to protect yourself? First, don't ask your doctor for unnecessary antibiotics. Second, buy meat and other food products (such as milk and eggs) that are labeled "organic" or "raised without antibiotics."
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