Assessing potential human health hazards and benefits from subtherapeutic antibiotics in the United States: Tetracyclines as a case study

  • Cox L
  • Popken D
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Many scientists, activists, regulators, and politicians have expressed urgent concern that using antibiotics in food animals selects for resistant strains of bacteria that harm human health and bring nearer a "postantibiotic era" of multidrug resistant "super-bugs." Proposed political solutions, such as the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), would ban entire classes of subtherapeutic antibiotics (STAs) now used for disease prevention and growth promotion in food animals. The proposed bans are not driven by formal quantitative risk assessment (QRA), but by a perceived need for immediate action to prevent potential catastrophe. Similar fears led to STA phase-outs in Europe a decade ago. However, QRA and empirical data indicate that continued use of STAs in the United States has not harmed human health, and bans in Europe have not helped human health. The fears motivating PAMTA contrast with QRA estimates of vanishingly small risks. As a case study, examining specific tetracycline uses and resistance patterns suggests that there is no significant human health hazard from continued use of tetracycline in food animals. Simple hypothetical calculations suggest an unobservably small risk (between 0 and 1.75E-11 excess lifetime risk of a tetracycline-resistant infection), based on the long history of tetracycline use in the United States without resistance-related treatment failures. QRAs for other STA uses in food animals also find that human health risks are vanishingly small. Whether such QRA calculations will guide risk management policy for animal antibiotics in the United States remains to be seen.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Acne
  • Animal antibiotics
  • Antimicrobial risk assessment
  • MRSA
  • Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA)
  • Resistance risks
  • Tetracycline

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  • Louis Anthony Cox

  • Douglas A. Popken

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