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Doctors: Superbugs from Factory Farms Dangerous

September 20, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Twenty thousand people died in a single year from drug-resistant staphylococcus (staph) infections, and researchers estimate another 10,000 a year could be killed by drug-resistant E. coli bacteria. Experts say much of the problem is the result of so-called factory farms, where confined animals get protective medicines even when they are not sick.

According to Maryn McKenna, author of "SuperBug: the Fatal Menace of MRSA," the crowded farms are near-perfect incubators for dangerous bacteria.

"If you don't want to believe there is a link, it becomes very easy to dismiss research that shows there is a link. But there is, in fact, decades of peer-reviewed research that shows a very clear link."

Dr. James Johnson, a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, points out that drug resistant E. coli has caused problems in several of West Virginia's neighboring states, and it could spread here.

"Farther up the eastern seaboard, there have been some real problems in the New York City area, particularly Brooklyn and Queens. Philadelphia, I think, has had some problems, and some have shown up also in Cleveland."

Johnson says E. coli that is resistant to several drugs has been found on 25 percent to 40 percent of raw poultry. He warns that workers in the poultry industry may also be at increased health risk, but most of the risk is for consumers. He recommends common-sense steps like washing hands and kitchen surfaces after handling raw poultry.

The impact of a superbug can be devastating, Johnson adds. He cites the example of one man with a recurrent intestinal infection that had been easily treated, until his infection changed.

"He was found to have bowel perforation and required emergency surgery; he was found to have a multi-resistant E. coli strain in his blood stream and abdomen. He's still convalescing. He survived, but he lost three months of work, was separated from his family, lost 20 pounds."

McKenna says up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. go to animals, most of them healthy. The poultry and livestock industries defend the practice as safe and necessary for cheap food. But McKenna says studies show that when farms stop using antibiotics, many of the superbugs go away. Legislation now before Congress would move in that direction.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV