The Threat of a Post-Antibiotic Era

Oct 14, 2014

The green bacteria are Hospital-Acquired- Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Bacteria that have attached to a human white cell. The bacteria shown is a leading cause of hospital-acquired infections in the United States and United Kingdom.
Credit NIAID / Creative Commons

The notion of drug-resistant bacteria has gone from an exotic problem to a common one. If you have even a medium-sized circle of acquaintances you probably know somebody - or an older parent of somebody -battling an infection that ignores standard antibiotics. It's a big problem and today we're going to focus on one chunk of it, the connection between antibiotics given to farm animals and the rise of these diseases.

If we treat ourselves the way we treat pigs, cattle and chickens, we'd be put on antibiotics at birth and pretty much never go off them until we die.

Actually, to avoid sickness that could wipe out a small city of chickens, we overused antibiotics to the point where a superbug could wipe out a small city of people.

Giving antibiotics to animals began after farmers realized they could increase production, prevent disease and make a profit. In 1977, FDA Commissioner David Kennedy, recommended we ban the use of Tetracycline in animals to avoid the risk of creating drug-resistant bacteria that could infect people, but he was blocked by a powerful agricultural industry and a skeptical Congress. It didn't help that the government didn't require the industry to collect or report any data on the link between resistant bacteria in animals and people.

Today, little has changed. While the Obama administration last year called for a strategy to combat resistance, including better data collection and reporting, most of the recommendations are voluntary. 

It's not fair to blame big agriculture for all of our problems with resistance. For years, consumers have used antibiotics inappropriately, doctors have over-prescribed,  efforts by healthcare workers to prevent spreading bacteria have been lax and, pharmaceutical companies shifted research dollars away from antibiotics to pursue development of more lucrative drugs. 

On the show today, we'll talk about that problem and also about some ways out. 


  • David Hoffman is a correspondent for Frontline and a contributing editor for the Washington Post where he was previously Foreign Editor and White House correspondent
  • Dr. Michael Nailor is a pharmacist and co-funded faculty member between the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy in Storrs and as a clinical specialist in infectious diseases at Hartford Hospital
  • Stewart (Chip) Beckett is the senior veterinarian of Beckett & Associates Veterinary Practices in Glastonbury, Connecticut