The New Health Dialogue

A Blog from New America's Health Policy Program

Big Win for Public Health - F.D.A. Style

Published:  April 17, 2012
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Source: Flickr user Lehigh Valley, PA

In case you missed it, the FDA came out with new rules last week to limit the use of antibiotics in farm animals. While at first glance this might seem unrelated to health issues in humans, it actually matters quite a lot. The connection works like this: the indiscriminate use of antibiotics to produce the food we eat contributes to the creation of antibiotic-resistant disease strains. When humans then get infected with these strains, antibiotics are ineffective at treating the new strains, thus posing a fairly significant public health risk.

This risk is not insubstantial. According to the New York Times, “at least two million people are sickened and an estimated 99,000 die every year from hospital-acquired infections, the majority of which result from such resistant strains.” Further, the use of antibiotics for farm animals is not an isolated occurrence – as Ezra Klein pointed out in the Wonkbook newsletter this week, “70 percent of the antibiotics used in this country – 70 percent! – go into livestock production.” The director general of the WHO, Margaret Chan, has warned that the overuse of antibiotics could “end medicine as we know it.”

So the overuse of antibiotics is bad for humans, bad for public health, and leads to up to $40 billion of avoidable care costs per year. It should be pointed out that many doubt the efficacy of the new rules, but even with these concerns, it’s a welcome first step towards reducing improper antibiotic use in farm animals and reducing avoidable care costs for those humans among us.

Some would argue that $40 billion might not seem much compared to the overall costs of health care, estimated at $2.6 trillion dollars in 2010 alone. That's barely over one percent of medical spending--but one percent matters! (It meets Zeke Emanuel's threshhold, at least.) The fact is, the medical spending problem is enormous, and we need small, common-sense changes in addition to large-scale payment and delivery-system reform if we want to make a difference.

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