Medicine Should Be For Sick People

There’s a new advertising campaign under way in Metro taking aim at the routine use of antibiotics in commercial poultry- and livestock-raising enterprises:

Photo by Eric Goldman

Photo by Eric Goldman

For all the same reasons that antibiotics can be helpful to sick people they can also be helpful to sick animals. Or, in the minds of America’s industrial farmers, they can be given out routinely as a prophylactic measure so as to make it possible to raise animals in unhealthy and unsanitary environments, while also feeding them cheap corn that makes them ill. Unfortunately, as Eric Goldman emphasizes, this helps breed antibiotic resistant bacteria with dire health consequences for people.

The specific talking point that this increases health care costs is a cute way of piggybacking on the current political debate. In reality, I doubt that the actual contribution to health care inflation is especially large as the biggest costs are associated with chronic conditions or end-of-life situations. On the other hand, it is true that this is an important public health issue. Antibiotic resistant bacteria is, at the moment, a somewhat problematic situation. But the really scary thing is the prospect that it could become much worse. We’ve invented a lot of new antibiotics over the years, but there isn’t any guarantee that an infinite range of antibiotics are out there just waiting to be invented. In principle, we could wind up backing ourselves into some extremely problematic situations in the future, and making chicken slightly cheaper isn’t a good reason to be doing it.