One of the great ironies of our so-called "information age" is just how often real, important information is unavailable to us. From mortgage brokers who hide information about interest rates to the Pentagon, what we know pales in comparison to what we don't know.
Such is the state with antibiotics, once-powerful antibacterial drugs that have been overused so recklessly for so many decades that bacteria have now mutated into strains that are robust enough to shrug off whatever medicines we throw at them.
These antibiotic-resistant "superbugs" include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Klebsiella pneumonia, Acinetobacter baumannii -- even household names like tuberculosis and gonorrhea can now outlive virtually every medicine in our drug armamentarium.
Oddly, most of the antibiotics that we use in America aren't given to sick people -- they're given to healthy livestock animals, usually on concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. Though we know why these drugs are used -- they help stimulate growth and can make pigs, cows and other livestock up to 5 percent larger -- we didn't really know how much antibiotics are given to these animals. But finally, the truth is out.
The Food and Drug Administration quietly posted a report that details what drugs are used and in what quantity, which reveals some shocking numbers: an estimated 28.7 million pounds of antibiotics were given to farm animals in 2009, either through injections, pills or in feed. And that figure doesn't include drugs like antivirals or antifungal medications.
What makes this figure truly mind-boggling is when it's compared to the amount of antibiotics given to humans every year: about 3 million pounds, according to most reliable estimates. In other words, almost 10 times the amount of antibiotics are given to animals.
Do the livestock need these drugs? No, in most cases, though there is some verifiable use of antibiotics for therapeutic needs in farm animals. The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that non-therapeutic use is about 24.6 million pounds, so just over 4 million pounds -- still more than humans use -- are given to livestock each year.
This is not OK. Sally Davies, Britain's chief medical officer (a role more or less equivalent to the U.S. surgeon general) blasted Parliament with the announcement that antibiotic-resistance among superbugs presents a very real "apocalyptic scenario" that should be should be included on the British government's official list of possible national emergencies, right next to natural or man-made disasters and terrorist attacks.
"We need to get our act together in this country," she told Parliament. She could have easily been talking to the U.S. Congress or the White House, which has been foot-dragging on this critical issue for years, largely at the behest of the livestock industry.
Indeed, the reason we don't know more about therapeutic vs. non-therapeutic use of livestock is because lobbyists for the billion-dollar agribusiness industry claim that breaking out that info would reveal "trade secrets."
Why should this matter to you? Again, Sally Davies of the U.K. delivers the punch: She warns that in the very near future, we could see people dying from routine infections "because we have run out of antibiotics."
Imagine, then, a world in which a scraped knee or a shaving cut could be deadly. Offering to shake hands could be considered a deadly threat. And if you have any kind of real health condition -- an outpatient operation, or cancer that requires chemotherapy -- your life is immediately endangered.
This is the kind of world we are creating for ourselves, and only we can stop it. Fortunately, there are voices of reason in the wilderness, and one of them is U.S. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), a microbiologist by training, who has taken a lead on reducing the use of antibiotics to sane levels.
Slaughter has also asked Congress to ban triclosan, the antimicrobial ingredient commonly found in soap that also contributes to antibiotic resistance. Leaders like Slaughter need all the supports we can give them -- before it's too late.