World Health Organization Warns of a Post-Antibiotic Era

When I was ten, my life was saved by antibiotics when I had pneumonia and pleurisy simultaneously. So this story has personal resonance for me.

It’s worth noting that 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are used as a routine part of raising animals for meat, dairy, and eggs, on factory farms and other non-organic agricultural operations. That’s where the problem most urgently needs to be addressed. The private sector isn’t doing anything about it, which means it will require regulatory action at the federal level. The sooner the better.

The ‘post-antibiotic’ era is near, according to a report released today by the World Health Organization (WHO). The decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents is a global problem, and a surveillance system should be established to monitor it, the group says.

There is nothing hopeful in the WHO’s report, which pulls together data from 129 member states to show extensive resistance to antimicrobial agents in every region of the world. Overuse of antibiotics in agriculture — to promote livestock growth — and in hospitals quickly leads to proliferation of drug-resistant bacteria, which then spread via human travel and poor sanitation practices.

“A post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the twenty-first century,” writes Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general for health security, in a foreword to the report.

Perhaps the most worrying trend is the spread of resistance to carbapenems, the ‘antibiotics of last resort’, says Timothy Walsh, a medical microbiologist at Cardiff University, UK, who was an adviser for the report. “That’s taken us by surprise,” he says. “All of us are rather like rabbits in front of the headlights in how quickly this has taken off.”

 

FDA Moves Against Trans Fats

This move should complete the elimination of artificial trans fats from the American diet. Previous advice from the government had already lowered the amount of trans fats in packaged foods substantially.

On the basis of a review of scientific evidence and findings from expert panels, the agency made a preliminary determination that the oils “are not generally recognized as safe for use in food” and should be eliminated, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD, said on a conference call with reporters.

The decision “is very welcome and strongly supported by massive scientific evidence that trans fat has many adverse effects on health,” Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, of the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an email to MedPage Today. “Trans fat has no place on the table, and this step will help make the diets of Americans safer.”

Harvard School of Public Health’s Walter Willett, PhD, puts the change into context:

Willett added, “Further removal of trans fats will also likely nudge down rates of diabetes, obesity, and other conditions as well.”

“Importantly, by getting trans fat off the table entirely, we will be able to focus attention on other aspects of diet that also need to be improved,” he said. “This will likely have a ripple effect worldwide because other countries are considering similar actions.”

U.S. Compares Poorly to Europe on Agricultural Safety Policies

In Mother Jones, Tom Philpott flags seven food-related substances or procedures that are banned in Europe but allowed in the United States.

Here are the first three, and it doesn’t really look any brighter after that:

 1. Atrazine Why it’s a problem: A “potent endocrine disruptor,” Syngenta’s popular corn herbicide has been linked to a range of reproductive problems at extremely low doses in both amphibians and humans, and it commonly leaches out of farm fields and into people’s drinking water.

What Europe did: Banned it in 2003.

US status: EPA: “Atrazine will begin registration review, EPA’s periodic reevaluation program for existing pesticides, in mid-2013.”

2. Arsenic in chicken, turkey, and pig feed Why it’s a problem: Arsenic is beloved of industrial-scale livestock producers because it makes animals grow faster and turns their meat a rosy pink. It enters feed in organic form, which isn’t harmful to humans. Trouble is, in animals guts, it quickly goes inorganic, and thus becomes poisonous. Several studies, including one by the FDA, have found heightened levels of inorganic arsenic in supermarket chicken, and it also ends up in manure, where it can move into tap water. Fertilizing rice fields with arsenic-laced manure may be partially responsible for heightened arsenic levels in US rice.

What Europe did: According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, arsenic-based compounds “were never approved as safe for animal feed in the European Union, Japan, and many other countries.”

US status: The drug giant Pfizer “voluntarily” stopped marketing the arsenical feed additive Roxarsone back in 2011. But there are still several arsenicals on the market. On May 1, a coalition of enviro groups including the Center for Food Safety, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit demanding that the FDA ban them from feed.

3. “Poultry litter” in cow feed

Why it’s a problem: You know how arsenic goes inorganic—and thus poisonous—in chickens’ guts? Consider that their arsenic-laced manure is then commonly used as a feed for cows. According to Consumers Union, the stuff “consists primarily of manure, feathers, spilled feed, and bedding material that accumulate on the floors of the buildings that house chickens and turkeys.” The “spilled feed” part is of special concern, because chickens are often fed “meat and bone meal from dead cattle,” CU reported, and that stuff can spill into the litter and be fed back to cows, raising mad cow disease concerns.

What Europe did: Banned all forms of animal protein, including chicken litter, in cow feed in 2001.

US status: The practice remains unrestricted. US cattle consume about 2 billion pounds of it annually, Consumers Union’s Michael Hansen told me last year.

40% Failure Rate on Hip Transplants: Executives Knew But Hid the Evidence

This level of corruption in the service of corporate profits is no surprise to anyone who follows developments in the drug and medical device industries. Still, if I step back a bit, it is nothing short of breathtaking.

THIS month, Johnson & Johnson is facing more than 10,000 lawsuits over an artificial hip that has been recalled because of a 40 percent failure rate within five years. Mistakes happen in medicine, but internal documents showed that executives had known of flaws with the device for some time, but had failed to make them public.

It would be nice to imagine that this kind of behavior is exceptional, but in reality, the entire evidence base for medicine has been undermined by a casual lack of transparency. Sometimes this is through a failure to report concerns raised by doctors and internal analyses, as was the case with Johnson & Johnson. More commonly, it involves the suppression of clinical trial results, especially when they show a drug is no good. These problems would be bad enough on their own, but they are compounded by a generation of “fake fixes” that have delivered false reassurance, and so prevent realistic public discussion.

The best evidence shows that half of all the clinical trials ever conducted and completed on the treatments in use today have never been published in academic journals. Trials with positive or flattering results, unsurprisingly, are about twice as likely to be published — and this is true for both academic research and industry studies.

Read the rest of the article. It actually gets worse.

 

 

U.S. Allows Chemicals in Food That Are Illegal Elsewhere

One more reason to read ingredient lists and not to trust the safety of listed items that aren’t actually recognizable foods.

Why the difference? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration would not provide a representative for an interview, but in past statements to the media and on its website the agency has presented a variety of reasons for allowing controversial chemicals in food, ranging from a lack of resources for research to assurances that the substances are safe in small doses.

In the case of BVO, the agency has allowed “interim” use of the ingredient since 1970, pending additional toxicological tests. Asked why it has not addressed the interim status in more than 40 years, the agency cited a need to “maximize its resources” and said addressing the issue is “not a priority for the agency at this time.”

“FDA’s mission is first and foremost to protect public health by ensuring that foods are safe and properly labeled,” the agency said in a statement, contending that science-based implementation of federal law has helped make the U.S. food supply “the safest in the world.”

Unsatisfied with these kinds of answers, activists and public health watchdogs have urged the FDA and food makers to halt the use of various chemicals until safety can be fully determined. Food companies, they note, have reformulated their products for other countries — including members of the European Union, China, Australia, Japan and India — but seem reluctant to change their products in the U.S. until they must.”

Drug Company Corruption, Pfizer Edition

The level of pharmaceutical company corruption is breathtaking.

A research director for Pfizer was positively buoyant after reading that an important medical conference had just featured a study claiming that the new arthritis drug Celebrex was safer on the stomach than more established drugs.

“They swallowed our story, hook, line and sinker,” he wrote in an e-mail to a colleague.

The truth was that Celebrex was no better at protecting the stomach from serious complications than other drugs. It appeared that way only because Pfizer and its partner, Pharmacia, presented the results from the first six months of a yearlong study rather than the whole thing.

The companies had a lot riding on the outcome of the study, given that Celebrex’s effect on the stomach was its principal selling point. Earlier studies had shown it was no better at relieving pain than common drugs — like ibuprofen — already on the market.

 

Gambling with Our Genetic Future: GMOs and the World Food Supply

This interview with Jeffrey Smith appears in the June 2012 issue of Pathways, a Washington, DC, community quarterly. The web version here includes a list of references at the end which is not included in the print version.

Jeffrey M. Smith is a consumer advocate who has written extensively about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, he advocates against their inclusion in the food supply.

In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Smith describes the scientific studies that raise red flags about the safety of GMOs; several European nations’ current bans on GMOs in foods and how their regulatory processes differ from the United States; the British scandal in which veteran scientist Arpad Pusztai’s work was suppressed until revealed by a Parliamentary inquiry; court documents revealing that FDA scientists were overruled by a political appointee to allow the first introduction of GMOs into the U.S. food supply in the 1990s; and the revolving door that has allowed a top Monsanto official to rotate back and forth multiple times between corporate and regulatory positions of power in the U.S. federal government.

Smith also explains that as a non-scientist writer and advocate, he follows a policy of having his writing reviewed for accuracy by at least three scientists prior to publication.

Smith’s first book was Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating. His second, the comprehensively documented Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, covers research linking GMOs to a wide variety of health risks in humans and animals. In his foreword to Genetic Roulette, former UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher writes, “This is a brilliant book which combines shrewd dissection of the true nature of GM technology, a devastating critique of the health and environmental hazards of GM crops, and scarifying examples of the manipulation of both science and the media by the biotech industry.”

Jeffrey Smith has lectured in 30 countries and has been quoted in The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC World Service, Nature, The Independent, Daily Telegraph, New Scientist, The Times (London), Associated Press, Reuters News Service, LA Times, Time Magazine and Genetic Engineering News. His radio and TV appearances have included BBC, NPR, Fox News, Democracy Now and the Dr. Oz Show. He writes an internationally syndicated column, Spilling the Beans, and has a regular blog on The Huffington Post.

Pulitzer Prize winning ecological poet and essayist Gary Snyder was once asked what he feared most. This was a broad question—his answer could have been Alzheimer’s, starvation, fascism or anything else. His answer was, “Contamination of the gene pool.” You’ve devoted your life to this issue. To begin at the beginning, what is a genetically modified organism and how do these GMOs become part of the food supply?

GMOs are organisms—plant, animal, etc.—where genes from the DNA of one species are forced into the DNA of other species. In our food supply, foods like soybeans and corn have been genetically engineered with bacteria genes, allowing the crop to withstand doses of herbicide, or in the case of corn, to also produce their own toxic pesticide.

They were introduced into our food supply through deception and manipulation. The person in charge of policy at the FDA was Michael Taylor, the former attorney to biotech giant Monsanto, who claimed in the policy of the FDA that the agency was not aware of information showing that these foods were significantly different. Therefore, companies like Monsanto, who had previously told us that PCBs, Agent Orange and DDT were safe, were able to determine whether their GMOs were safe–no safety studies were required. They can introduce a new GMO without having to tell the FDA or consumers.

But documents made public from a lawsuit, Alliance for Biointegrity v. Shalala, revealed that the policy at the FDA was based on a lie. In fact, the overwhelming consensus among the FDA’s own scientists was that genetically modified foods were not only different but dangerous and could create hard-to-detect allergens, toxins, new diseases and nutritional problems. They had urged their superiors to require testing but were ignored.

Michael Taylor then went on to become Monsanto’s Vice President and chief lobbyist.  He is now back at the FDA as the U.S. food safety czar.

Long-Term Opioid Use Questioned at FDA Hearing

Recently, I’ve been reading and thinking a great deal about the use of prescription drugs for pain. Opioids are clearly the flashpoint for current debate.

From today’s MedPage:

Opioids used to be prescribed primarily for cancer pain and short-term relief immediately after surgery or an accident. But that changed in 1996, when the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the American Pain Society — organizations that get substantial funding from drug companies — issued a joint statement endorsing the use of opioids to treat chronic pain and claiming the risk of addiction was low.

Since then, drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin increasingly have been used to treat a wide array of chronic pain syndromes including low back pain and fibromyalgia, despite a lack of good scientific evidence to prove that their benefits outweigh potential harm when used long term. Opioids are also increasingly being prescribed to the elderly, often for chronic pain.

The Obama administration has called the current prescription drug abuse epidemic a “public health crisis” worse than the crack and heroin epidemics of past decades. In 2007, there were 28,000 deaths from prescription drug overdoses — five times the number in 1990. Those deaths were driven largely by the abuse of prescription painkillers. Painkiller abuse now matches abuse of illegal drugs.

“[Opioids’] increasing use has resulted in a clearly unacceptable increase in addiction, overdose, and death,” Douglas Throckmorton, MD, deputy director for regulatory programs at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said at the meeting.

But the meeting didn’t focus on safety concerns with opioids; rather, it focused on efficacy and effectiveness, and attendees discussed the existing evidence to support giving pain patients opioids long term.

Supplements, Especially Those for Bodybuilding and Weight Loss, Linked to Liver Disease

Today’s MedPage includes a report on a study linking supplement use to liver damage.

A few comments…

I find it revealing that the study’s authors report a long list of drug company conflicts of interest and that “supplements” are to a large extent lumped into one overall category, which has the effect of creating a generalized anti-supplement narrative.

That said, the fact that bodybuilding and weight loss supplements seem to be the main culprits appears to be an important finding.

It would be most helpful to find out exactly which supplements we’re talking about. But all we’ve got at this point is an abstract from a poster presentation at a digestive diseases conference.

I will be interested to see if this results in a flurry of anti-supplement stories in major media in the coming days, despite the lack of publicly available data to analyze the findings and respond to the clearly anti-supplement narrative.

If certain supplements are dangerous, that’s definitely worth publicizing. But to tar all supplements with the same brush is disingenuous at best.

When the Supposedly Safer Alternative Appears to be More Dangerous

This is a fascinating and meaningful research project by my friend, Sarina Farb.

Though only a high school senior, she is pursuing a line of research that has the potential to prevent a great deal of illness and suffering from these apparently dangerous environmental chemicals (BPA and BPS) to which we are all exposed.

Farb noticed that the Lawrence Public Library and The Merc promote BPA-free receipts, as BPA is used in the ink and found on the surface of receipts. Studies have suggested that the BPA found on receipts is absorbed into the body when handled.

So instead, the receipts at The Merc and the library contain BPS, or bisphenol S, which is similar to BPA. However, very few studies have examined whether BPS is any safer than BPA. So Farb set off to find out.

Farb talked her way into a lab at Kansas University, and with the assistance of Kristi Neufeld, a molecular biology professor, obtained some lab space and the necessary testing supplies.

Farb spent “hundreds of hours” over the past year testing whether BPA and BPS cause an increase in the growth of breast cancer cells.

The results?

“BPS is worse,” said Farb, as her results showed that BPS caused more growth in the breast cancer cells than BPA.