Food Bacteria More Drug-Resistant in U.S., Europe, Study Suggests

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"In most industrial countries Campylobacter is more commonly reported than Salmonella, a better-known cause of food poisoning," Unicomb said.

"The number of cases of Campylobacter have been on the rise [in Australia] since the early '90s."

In the U.S., about 1.4 million people contracted Campylobacter infections last year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.

While the infection rate in the U.S. has dropped over the last decade, the bacteria have grown more drug resistant.

According to the CDC, surveys between 1986 and 1990 found no signs of resistance to the antibiotics in U.S. Campylobacter infections.

But by 1997 strains resistant to the antibiotics accounted for 12 percent of human cases. In 2001 the figure climbed to 18 percent.

Preventable Illness

Public health experts say many factors contribute to Campylobacter's drug resistance, among them the widespread use of fluoroquinolonones by U.S. poultry farmers over the past decade.

Fluoroquinolones were first approved for use in humans by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1986.

In 1995 the FDA granted poultry farmers permission to the use the drugs in livestock.

Last year the FDA banned the antibiotic from food-producing animals, citing the concerns raised by public health experts over drug-resistant bacteria.

Frederick Angulo, an epidemiologist with the CDC, monitors the drug resistance of food-borne pathogens in the U.S. food supply.

"The people who are most likely to get infected with food-borne diseases include the most vulnerable people in the population—infants and young children and also the elderly," he said.

He says that Campylobacter infections are entirely preventable, as is the bacteria's antibiotic resistance.

"In many ways what's occurring with Campylobacter is an indicator for a broader issue, which is … antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the food supply," he said.

Peter Collignon of Canberra Hospital in Australia is an expert on drug-resistant pathogens.

In a letter published late last year in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, he said agricultural use of fluoroquinolonones spurred "rapidly increasing resistance rates in most countries."

"In the United States, 19 percent of Campylobacter [specimens isolated in] humans are now [antibiotic] resistant, and resistance rates greater than 80 percent are seen in Spain," he wrote.

"By contrast, in Australia, where fluoroquinolones were never approved for use in food animals, domestically acquired infections with fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter are rarely found in humans."

Unicomb, the author of the current study, says the low drug-resistance rate of Campylobacter in Australia matches that of Norway and Sweden, which have either never approved or banned the drug from use in livestock.

"By contrast, countries that permit the use of fluoroquinolones in animals detect ciprofloxacin resistance in 10 percent or more [cases]," she said.

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