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'Superbugs, Supermoms'" NDSU official attends national event

Gerald Stokka (NDSU photo)

Gerald Stokka wasn't quite sure what to expect when he traveled to Washington, D.C., recently to take part in one stage of the Pew Charitable Trusts' "Supermoms Against Superbugs" initiative.

But Stokka, North Dakota State University extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist, said the Feb. 27-March 1 event — in which parents, doctors and agriculturalists met with policymakers and shared their perspective on the growing threat on antibiotic resistance — was both positive and encouraging.

"It was a good event, with an interesting mix of people. And there was really a sense that we're all in this together," he said.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is an independent nonprofit organization that describes its mission as "improving public policy, informing the public and stimulating civic life." Its Supermoms Against Superbugs Initiative seeks to "ensure the responsible use of antibiotics in veterinary and human medicine, spur a robust pipeline of new drugs, and increase funding across the federal government to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria."

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts:

  • At least 23,000 Americans die and about 2 million are sickened every year from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.
  • Bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics over time, so "antibiotics should be used as little as possible in all settings — including in health care and agriculture — and only when medically necessary and appropriate."
  • The best available data shows that about 70 percent of all "medically important antibiotics in the United States is for use on the farm," increasing the importance of limiting antibiotic use in animals.
  • "What we do in livestock production can have — could have — an impact on resistance on the human population. I don't think it's a big threat, but it's a threat on the human side," Stokka said.

However, the 70 percent figure, which one participant in the Washington, D.C., event used, is "misleading. ... It makes it look like we're not doing things right, and for the most part we are," Stokka said.

In fact, 30 percent of that 70 percent is for antibiotics that have no relation to antibiotics used in human medicine, he said.

And administering an antibiotic to large numbers of animals on a single farm is different than treating one person, Stokka said.

"If you treat 30,000 birds at one time, that will weigh a whole lot more than one human being. So the numbers add up in a hurry, and I don't think that's the right way to measure the amount of antibiotics used in one sector against another," he said. "You're not comparing apples against apples."

It's important to remember "there's nothing unnatural about antibiotic resistance," he said. "Resistance is part of nature."

It's also important, especially for people outside ag, to remember the need to keep food affordable, he said.

Stokka said Pew Charitable Trusts — and the nonagricultural participants in the three-day event — seemed committed to working constructively with agriculture on combating antibiotic resistance.

"And we in agriculture will be part of that," he said.

Stokka said his basic advice for livestock producers remains the same:

  • Work carefully and closely with their veterinarian in using antibiotics. "It behooves us all to use them wisely and only when necessary. My goal is to have our veterinarians — and they are — be the arbiters of what to use, when to use and how to use," Stokka said.
  • Make sure their management strategies lead to needing antibiotics as seldom as possible.
  • Keep detailed records of antibiotic use.