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Drug-resistant bacteria a growing threat

Two years ago, my eldest son, when an adult, received a minor cut on the tip of his finger while helping to prepare a family meal of lobster. He didn't think much of it, but to his surprise, the cut became infected. His doctor prescribed him antibiotics, but the first line of drugs didn't do the trick. The infection was resistant to them. His finger was ultimately saved, but only after he was admitted to two different hospitals, endured long regimens of expensive medications, and underwent surgery and extensive physical therapy. The finger will never be the same.

As a registered nurse, I have long-known that drug-resistant bacteria is a growing problem. But this was the first time it hit so close to home.

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More than 2 million Americans contract antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and approximately 23,000 of them are fatal. The World Health Organization has suggested that unless we take action now, by 2050 we will have more deaths from antibiotic resistant infections than from cancer.

That's why I introduced a bill with Sen. Paul Pinsky earlier this month to fight back, starting right here in Maryland. Our bill (SB 607) takes aim at one of the main drivers behind the spread of drug-resistant bacteria in humans: overuse of antibiotics on livestock that are not even sick.

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While it's also important to ensure the medical community is judicious about prescribing antibiotics to humans only when necessary, more than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics are currently used in agriculture. The vast majority of those drugs are used to promote growth and prevent disease as a poor compensation for crowded, contaminated living quarters, not to treat sick animals. Unfortunately, the trend only seems to be increasing: Antibiotic sales to the U.S. agricultural industry have risen 22 percent since the Food and Drug Administration began collecting information in 2009.

This overuse breeds bacteria strains that become resistant to those drugs — the same drugs we rely on to save human lives. And from there, it can spread to people in a number of ways, including via animal excrement and contaminated meat. Not surprisingly, antibiotic resistant-bacteria have been detected in individuals working with large-scale animal feeding operations, as well as meat products sold in grocery stores.

Antibiotic-resistant infections are a major concern in Maryland hospitals today. They mean longer hospitalizations, more invasive treatments, greater expense and inferior patient outcomes.

There's no doubt about it: The problem is right here, right now. But the solution can be as well.

Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, warned in 1945 that bacteria could become resistant to these miracle drugs. Today, his warning is playing out before our eyes. The less we are able to rely on antibiotics, the more dangerous every cut, every illness, every hospital stay and every surgery becomes.

This is a battle we may end up losing due to antibiotic resistance, and the consequences are almost too terrible to imagine. We can anticipate that mortality rates will skyrocket, especially for the young, the elderly and those forced to undergo surgery. Unless we act fast, these problems could foreshadow the beginning of a new Dark Age in the 21st Century.

A small cut on my son's finger was a wake-up call that I hope that others will learn from and never have to experience in their own families. But as long as antibiotics are routinely used in animal meat production, they are likely to lose their effectiveness quickly.

Maryland has an opportunity to lead the way in saving our nation's miracle drugs, and we must not let it slip away. Our lives, and the lives of our loved ones, very likely will depend on it.

Shirley Nathan-Pulliam is a Maryland state senator. Her email is shirley.nathan.pulliam@senate.state.md.us.

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