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By Trina Wood on July 27, 2016

If you’ve ever raised a kid prone to ear infections, you are probably all too familiar with the “cillins”—penicillin, methicillin, amoxicillin, oxacillin. When my daughter would wake in the middle of the night screaming with ear pain as a baby, I couldn’t wait to get her to the doctor in the morning for a prescription of pink, bubble gum-flavored relief.

Antibiotics can be wonder drugs, clearing up infections and treating common diseases that may have even proved fatal in the past. But some infections are becoming trickier to treat as bacteria "learn" to outwit the pharmaceuticals that once killed them, leading to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control, each year in the U.S. at least 2 million people become infected with these resistant bacteria and as a direct result approximately 23,000 die annually.

A serious public health threat to both humans and animals

Humans aren’t the only ones who experience resistance to antibiotics — animals do too. Veterinarians are finding treating illnesses like pneumonia or mastitis (a potentially fatal mammary gland infection in cattle) more difficult.

Improper antibiotic use in food-producing animals can have a negative impact on public health. That’s because resistant bacteria in food animals may directly or indirectly result in antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.

California first to pass livestock antibiotic regulation

The recent passage of California Senate Bill (SB) 27 makes the state the first in the nation to require a veterinarian’s prescription for therapeutic antibiotic use in livestock. It also supplements new Food and Drug Administration guidelines to phase out the use of antimicrobial drugs to promote growth in animals. Furthermore, the bill places tough restrictions on all antibiotics used in livestock that are also medically important for humans.  

Human and veterinary medicine professionals at UC Davis are constantly faced with determining proper treatment for their patients — whether it’s an ear infection in a child or pneumonia in a calf — while working to minimize the misuse or overuse of antibiotics that could lead to antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

In fact, more than 150 human- and animal-health stakeholders, food companies and retailers have made commitments to implement changes in the coming years to slow the emergence of resistant bacteria and prevent the spread of resistant infections, as part of the White House’s National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.

Tips to protect you and your family from antibiotic resistance

Community-associated MRSA can be contracted through athletics that involve skin-to-skin contact or shared equipment
Community-associated MRSA can be contracted through athletics that involve skin-to-skin contact or shared equipment. (UC Davis photo)

Efforts to prevent antibiotic resistance build on proven public health strategies. Here are four tips to protect yourself and your family:

  1. Wash your hands: Careful hand washing remains your best defense against germs. Scrub hands briskly for at least 15 seconds, then dry them with a disposable towel and use another towel to turn off the faucet. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer containing at least 62 percent alcohol for times when you don't have access to soap and water.
  2. Keep wounds covered: Keep cuts and abrasions clean and covered with sterile, dry bandages until they heal. The pus from infected sores may contain MRSA, and keeping wounds covered will help prevent the bacteria from spreading.
  3. Keep personal items personal: Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing and athletic equipment. MRSA spreads on contaminated objects as well as through direct contact.
  4. Use antibiotics correctly: Antibiotics aren’t the cure-all for every illness and do not fight viruses that cause colds, bronchitis and most sore throats. Improper use may lead to future antibiotic-resistant infections.

Communications and marketing officer Trina Wood is the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s communications “Jill of All Trades.”