Fight a Smarter Germ War on the Farm

Invader.

Photographer: Media for Medical via Getty

In the long twilight struggle between humankind and germs -- and if you're reading this, you know which side you're on -- there has been a disheartening setback: The invaders have devised an ingenious new way to protect themselves. To fight back, we humans are going to need to change how we treat our fellow animals, especially livestock. 

A freshly evolved gene capable of neutralizing the strongest antibiotic drugs moves the world closer to a future in which infections become untreatable. The gene appears to have arisen from the agricultural use of antibiotics in China -- not surprising, given the many warnings that have been issued about their too-casual use in the farmyard. And the new threat underlines the need to limit treating animals with antibiotics. 

QuickTake Antibiotic Resistance

The discovery was made during routine livestock testing: A pig living on a farm in Shanghai was found to have a strain of E. coli resistant to colistin, one in a family of antibiotics that are used as a last resort in treating drug-resistant infections in humans. The same kind of resistance was then found in bacteria living in dozens of pigs and chickens across four provinces, and in 16 patients in Chinese hospitals. The mechanism by which this new kind of colistin resistance works makes it especially easy for it to be copied and passed from bug to bug. 

For the moment, the problem seems to be limited to China, one of the world's largest users of colistin in agriculture. But the antibiotic is also widely used on farms in Europe and Southeast Asia.

China is now reassessing the use of colistin in livestock feed. It needs to move quickly. While there are legitimate uses for antibiotics in agriculture, it's dangerous to use the same drugs that are essential to treating human infections such as pneumonia. It's especially careless to put them in the feed of healthy animals just to help them grow. 

Europe has for almost a decade banned the nonmedical use of antibiotics in agriculture, and in the U.S. the Food and Drug Administration is setting up restrictions that amount to nearly the same thing. But such bans alone haven't made a drastic difference. To successfully decrease their use of drugs without hurting their animals' health, farmers have to reduce density and otherwise improve the way livestock are housed and fed. 

None of this will be easy. But there are ways to use market incentives: If farmers were charged a user fee for antibiotics given to animals, for example, then they would use them less. The payments would also help cover the cost of maintaining an effective arsenal of antibiotics. And that would benefit humans and animals alike. 

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.