5,000 Americans Infected
With Drug-Resistant Bacteria
From Chicken Last Year
By Lisa Richwine

ROCKVILLE, Md. (Reuters) - An estimated 5,000 people last year may have picked up a drug-resistant strain of food poisoning from handling or eating chicken and were not cured after receiving initial antibiotic treatments, a study released on Thursday said.
The accuracy and significance of the findings were vigorously debated by scientists, public health advocates and industry representatives at a public meeting called by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to try to determine whether giving antibiotics to animals poses a serious human health threat.
Scientists believe the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals has spurred development of drug-resistant bacteria, or ''superbugs,'' that can be passed to humans if meat from antibiotic-treated animals is not handled or cooked properly.
The FDA is considering placing limits on antibiotic use on the farm, especially for drugs considered last resorts for stopping some human infections.
``We have gotten away from talking about zero risk,'' said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, head of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine. ``... We're talking about what is an acceptable level of risk.''
Makers of animal drugs contend the risk to humans is small, and that antibiotics help keep livestock healthy and the food supply affordable. They say that in addition to treating animal sickness, antibiotics help them grow faster.
The study ordered by the FDA looked at campylobacter, the most common type of food poisoning, that could not be killed with an antibiotic from a class known as fluoroquinolones, usually the first-line treatment for campylobacter infections.
David Vose, the independent consultant who conducted the study, used a complex mathematical model to calculate the risk to humans, which he acknowledged was hard to measure.
Vose relied on federal statistics on the number of campylobacter infections confirmed by laboratory tests in the United States in 1998.
Assuming those numbers represented only a portion of all campylobacter cases, Vose estimated 2 million people were infected by the bacteria. Then, he factored in the number of people with infections serious enough to seek treatment, and the likelihood that their cases were drug resistant.
He concluded about 5,000 people were infected with resistant types of campylobacter and probably received fluoroquinolones that did not work. Because the patients were delayed in getting successful treatment, they were sick for an average of two days longer than normal, Vose said.
Vose acknowledged the study relied on several assumptions. ''It recognizes the uncertainties,'' Vose said, ``but the uncertainties could be eased a great deal if we were able to collect more data.''
Campylobacter usually causes mild to moderate diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever, generally for one day to one week. Most patients do not go to their doctors for treatment.
But Dr. Fred Angulo of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said campylobacter can lead to serious infections, especially for children, the elderly or people with weak immune systems.
``There may be more severe harm to them than just two more days of diarrhea,'' Angulo said.
Officials are using the two-day meeting to hear comments on whether Vose's study should be used as a model for assessing the threat to people.
A spokesman said the agriculture industry recognizes the need to use antibiotics wisely and that the study showed ``99.9 percent of the U.S. population'' was not at risk for that specific type of infection.
``There appears to be a very low risk to the U.S. population,'' said Dr. Richard Carnevale, vice president for scientific, international and regulator affairs for the Animal Health Institute.


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