How Cheap Meat Practices Beef Up Superbugs Like MRSA

PHOTO: Simon Sparrow, 1, died from a MRSA infection in 2004. His mother has since been on a mission to raise awareness of superbugs.
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As 1½-year-old Simon Sparrow lay dying in a hospital in April 2004, doctors were perplexed as to what was causing his illness.

"None of the health care professionals at the University of Chicago had any clue as to why he died," Simon's mother, Everly Macario, recalls. "From the moment he got strange symptoms to when he died was 24 hours."

Tests following Simon's death revealed that he'd succumbed to an overwhelming infection caused by a highly antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria known as methicilliin-resistant Staph aureus, or MRSA. Despite having a doctorate in public health from Harvard, Macario had never heard of MRSA or its potentially deadly consequences.

Since her son's death, Macario has made it her mission to raise awareness of these deadly infections. On Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Macario joined a group of concerned mothers, health care providers, farmers and chefs in a roundtable meeting to raise awareness of the growing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

The "Supermoms Against Superbugs" event, co-sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, is meant to raise awareness of the link between antibiotic overuse in farm animals and an increase in antibiotic resistant "superbug" infections in humans.

MRSA is among a growing number of bacterial strains that are highly resistant to antibiotics and are very difficult to treat when they cause serious infections. According to infectious disease experts, the increase in the number of superbugs over the past three decades comes from the overuse of antibiotics -- not only in humans but also in farm animals. All told, livestock consume nearly 25 million pounds of antibiotics versus the 3 million pounds used in humans each year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And an estimated 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are given to healthy farm animals -- not to treat disease but to promote animal growth, allow animals to live closer together and decrease the amount of time it takes to raise an animal and send it to market.

Superbugs can be the unfortunate side effect of this process. When farm animals eat the antibiotics placed in their food, it exposes the bacteria that live in their gut and skin to low levels of the drug. Some of these bugs survive this low-level assault and go on to develop resistance to the antibiotics. The resistant superbugs can then spread to humans either by direct contact with farm animals or by eating contaminated meat from the animals.

Once superbugs such as MRSA, E. coli and salmonella escape the farm, they can spread their antibiotic resistance to other bacteria that also cause infections in humans.

Dr. James Johnson, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, says this is a big problem.

"Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness against bacteria," Johnson says. "New antibiotics are not being developed at a fast enough rate, and we have fewer treatment options for infected patients."

Superbugs can cause a variety of diseases in humans, including urinary tract infections, blood stream infections, meningitis and pneumonia. The most vulnerable patients tend to be the very young, chronically ill, hospitalized patients and the elderly.

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