The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that drug-resistant bacteria cause 2 million illnesses and approximately 23,000 deaths each year in the U.S., according to the White House's March 2015 "National Action Plan For Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria."
Kansas State University's Mike Apley, a professor of production medicine and clinical pharmacology, and Brian Lubbers, assistant professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology and director of microbiology at the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, both study antimicrobial resistance and have gained national recognition for their work.
"If there is a clear public health risk of using an antibiotic in food animals, we must make some hard choices as to how and if that antibiotic should be used in these animals," Apley said. "We also don't want to see an antibiotic removed in the name of human health when it really doesn't affect human health and the removal harms our ability to care for animals. Antibiotics are a key tool for veterinarians and producers to protect the health and welfare of the animals used for food."
Apley was among the 150 human and animal health experts selected to attend the White House Forum on Antibiotic Stewardship in Washington, D.C., in June. He represented the National Cattlemen's Beef Association at the prestigious forum.
Determining how food animal antibiotics contribute to the problem is difficult. Apley says the "big swirling dogfight" between those who use antibiotic resistance as a tool against animal agriculture and those who argue that food animal antibiotic use has nothing to do with human health is counterproductive.
"Does antibiotic use in animals contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans? The answer, in my opinion, is yes for some specific drug-bacteria combinations - but it's a small part of the problem," Apley said. "Does that absolve us of responsibility to address it? Absolutely not."
Apley also strives to help retailers understand the issue. He says retailers respond to consumer concerns, so communicating with consumers is crucial.
"The research today isn't just about showing up in a peer-reviewed journal," Apley said. "It has to be translated and applied in regulatory, legislative, food retail and social media environments."
Meeting the challenge of antibiotic resistance requires not only determining potential impacts on human health, but also maintaining the ability of veterinarians to treat bacterial infections in animals. Lubbers is leading an update of a project he conducted with another colleague to track the changing populations and resistance levels of the bacteria that cause bovine respiratory disease, or BRD, a costly disease that affects cattle. In samples tested at the university in 2010-2012, antibiotic resistance of the primary bacterium increased dramatically. Examining the data for more bacteria from 2005 through 2015 will help researchers further understand these trends and characterize the problem.
"We're seeing that more than 50 percent of the isolates of one bovine respiratory pathogen coming through the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab are resistant to more than three classes of antibiotics, so resistance is limiting treatment options for people in the field for BRD," Lubbers said.
A surveillance program for resistant bacteria in animals could help shape a national strategy to combat the problem, he said.
"National programs look at human bacteria, foodborne bacteria or bacteria from other types of surveys, not animal pathogens directly from cases of animal disease," Lubbers said. "That's why surveillance is the first big step. How big of a problem is it? We just don't know. Until you have the baseline, it's hard to measure any big strategy decisions and their outcomes."
The issue will be front and center when Lubbers co-chairs the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, Nov. 3-5 in Atlanta, Georgia, where this year's topic is metrics, or how to measure antibiotic resistance.
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