11/18/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Unlikely Champions Unite to Protect Antibiotics and Public Health

By Gary Cohen, President and Co-founder, Health Care Without Harm


Most of us cannot remember a time in our lives when basic infections like strep throat and conjunctivitis were considered untreatable, dangerous and potentially deadly. Thanks to antibiotics, such infections are usually little more than nuisances that temporarily interrupt our daily routines. But as antibiotics become increasingly misused and overused, the bacteria they are designed to kill can mutate and render these life-saving antibiotics useless.

Antibiotic-resistant infections not only prolong illness, but also lead to an increase in new infections. These "superbugs" are linked to 23,000 deaths and two million illnesses in the United States each year. The financial burden is also substantial: antibiotic-resistant infections cost $20 billion in excess direct health care expenses and as much as $35 billion in lost productivity from hospitalizations and sick days.

This issue is only getting worse: The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that half of the antibiotics used in human medicine -- and much more used in animal agriculture -- are unnecessary. The Obama administration, European governments and the World Health Organization have recognized the severity of antibiotic resistance and are calling for action to contain this dangerous spread of infections that could undermine our public health and social stability.

Outside of government efforts, an unlikely group of public health champions are partnering with Health Care Without Harm to help protect antibiotics: hospital food service directors and chefs. Approximately 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are given to animals, primarily to make them gain weight faster and fend off infection in crowded living quarters. By purchasing and serving meat and poultry raised without non-therapeutic antibiotics, hospitals are sending a message to the marketplace that these dangerous agricultural practices need to stop.

One pioneer and advocate in the antibiotic-free food movement is Chef Chris Linaman from Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, Washington. Chris experienced first-hand the devastating results of antibiotic failure when he suffered a three-month bout with a virulent, antibiotic-resistant infection. He later learned about the connection between the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture and the growing inability of the very same antibiotics to heal infections effectively in humans. Chris decided to turn his personal experience into a professional opportunity to make a difference for the health of others. In 2011, he wrote a food-purchasing policy manual for a new way of purchasing meat, and now nearly 50 percent of Overlake's meat budget is spent on products from animals raised without the routine use of antibiotics.

Overlake Hospital is just one of the many medical facilities from around the country that recently joined Health Care Without Harm to take a stand on Food Day, October 24. Nationwide, hundreds of hospitals vowed to serve at least one meat or poultry item raised without the use of antibiotics on this day as a symbol of solidarity with the campaign to protect this most important public health tool.

The Food Day campaign is just one example of the collaborative work being done every day by hospitals, physicians, nurses, chefs and other dedicated professionals who stand together to create a world where antibiotics remain effective in their intended purpose of keeping humans healthy and free from preventable and treatable infections.

Between October 27 and December 5, Health Care Without Harm is participating in the Skoll Social Entrepreneurs Challenge on CrowdRise.