There has been some encouraging movement in the United States over the last year in the battle against superbugs. A few major poultry companies and retailers have committed to decreasing antibiotic use in broiler chickens. And President Obama has created a national action plan to combat the growing threat of antibiotic resistance. This is certainly movement in the right direction, but silos — both perceived and real — are preventing us from making faster and better progress.
First, there is an insidious belief that antibiotic-resistant bacteria exist in silos. Said another way, some food-animal producers and drug companies have suggested that bacteria in animals and bacteria in humans stay in their respective corners and never cross over. As a microbiologist, I have dedicated my career to studying bacteria, and I know that this notion is false. Science tells us that bacteria move about freely in the environment and some superbugs flow seamlessly between people and animals. Studies dating back to the 1960s have shown repeatedly how antibiotic use in food-animal production contributes to the growing crisis of antibiotic-resistant infections in people. This body of research shows how antibiotic overuse breeds superbugs that end up in our bodies, food, air and water.
While superbugs don’t stay put in silos, the stakeholders concerned about antibiotic resistance do. Scientists doing the groundbreaking research are talking to other scientists, not policymakers, journalists and the general public. Industry representatives are talking to each other, while lobbying policymakers for the status quo. Public health organizations and non-profits working on this issue would like to bridge the gaps, but the gaps often seem unbridgeable. These silos prevent progress in combatting antibiotic resistance at a time when we desperately need action.