Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a public health alert for a widespread salmonella outbreak that has sickened nearly 300 people in multiple states. The current outbreak has gotten significant attention because it coincides with a government shutdown, which has furloughed the vast majority of federal public health officials and may be hampering the CDC’s ability to track the disease (on Wednesday, the CDC called some of those furloughed employees back to work).
But it gets worse. Now, the CDC is reporting that the hospitalization rate for the outbreak is twice as high as it usually is for salmonella cases. Forty two percent of the people who have contracted this strain of salmonella have needed to be hospitalized so far — and the hospitalization rate for this type of foodborne illness is typically around 20 percent.
CDC officials say that’s because of several strains of salmonella in this outbreak are resistant to drugs. “Antibiotic resistance, as seen in this outbreak, may be associated with an increased risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals,” CDC spokesperson John O’Connor noted.
How did this become a problem with salmonella? Likely because the chickens that first spread the illness, which were packaged at three Foster Farms facilities in California, were pumped full of too many antibiotics.
“Ninety-five percent of chickens are grown in such horrific conditions that they’re standing in poop and they end up infected with salmonella. If one chicken gets it, they all get it,” Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, pointed out to HealthDay News. In order to try to keep those chickens healthy, factory farms give them all antibiotics — and that eventually breeds resistance to those drugs. Siegel personally believes that the use of antibiotics in farm animals should be banned.
It’s not actually such a radical idea. Most European and Asian countries already ban the practice of giving antibiotics to animals for non-medical purposes. But here in the United States, meat producers are not only allowed to use those drugs on animals, but they’re also not even required to report the types or quantities of antibiotics they’re using.
So, considering the fact U.S. farm animals currently consume four times as many antibiotics as sick humans do, antibiotic resistance is becoming a big problem for us. In March, research confirmed that drug-resistant diseases can be passed from animals to humans — providing definitive evidence that giving these drugs to farm animals can end up posing a public health risk for people. That’s especially troubling since another recent study found that over half of U.S. meat contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Before the government shut down, the CDC was aware of the fact that the current salmonella outbreak involves several strains that are resistant to antibiotics. But now, the type of research that made that discovery has been halted.
Even though the CDC was able to declare an additional 30 employees to be “essential” this week, allowing them to return to work, those people are spread out throughout several departments. Not all of the public health officials who went back to work this week are focusing on salmonella. For instance, the program that analyzes drug-resistant diseases — the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System — remains shut down despite the current outbreak. Dr. Chris Braden, who heads the CDC’s division of foodborne diseases, told Wired that his agency won’t be able to learn more about these salmonella strains’ drug resistance.
“There is no staff doing that type of testing, so that even if there were isolates coming in that might be associated with an outbreak, we wouldn’t know it and we wouldn’t know that they’re antibiotic resistant,” Braden explained. “Due to the fact that we have people furloughed and those systems are not functioning, we may be missing something. That’s a concern of mine.”
Two U.S. lawmakers who have long advocated for increased oversight of the meat industry are calling for the shutdown to end before this outbreak gets worse. This week, Reps. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) issued a statement linking antibiotic use to the current salmonella cases, and criticizing Republicans for under-funding food safety initiatives.
“If Congress is to uphold its responsibility to keep the citizens of this country safe, we need to end this irresponsible shutdown so federal agencies can do their job, and finally pass legislation to save antibiotics for their intended use,” Slaughter noted.