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E. Coli with Antibiotic Resistance Often Found Among - and Spread by - Poultry Industry Workers

Dec 18, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP

Drug resistant E. coli is more likely to be found among poultry industry workers, a new study has found.  The authors of the new E. coli research say their findings point to the dangers of heavy antibiotic use within the US agricultural industry. Such routine use of antibiotics has long been a suspect in the rise of drug resistant E. coli and other pathogens.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, E. coli 0157:H7 is responsible for sickening 73,000 people every year, and of those, 60 will die from the disease. The symptoms of E. coli poisoning usually occur within 3 to 9 days after a victim eats contaminated foods. E. coli 0157:H7 causes a disease called hemorrhagic colitis, which is the sudden onset of stomach pain and severe cramps. This is followed by diarrhea that is watery and bloody. Sometimes there is vomiting, but there is no fever. The illness lasts about a week. While most people will recover completely, E. coli poisoning can be very dangerous for children, the elderly and anyone with a weak immune system. In some cases, E. coli 0157:H7 will cause a disorder called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can be life-threatening.

Over the past several years, E. coli has been showing an increasing resistance to available antibiotics.  Now, researchers at Johns Hopkins University have evidence that such drug resistance might have a direct correlation to the use of antibiotics in animal feeds.   They looked at stool samples from 16 poultry workers in Maryland and Virginia.  All had evidence of gentamicin-resistant E. coli. Those results can be extrapolated to the many thousands of workers who similarly handle chickens. As such, public health investigators at Johns Hopkins estimate that workers in US poultry factories are 32 times more likely to be colonized with E. coli that repels the antibiotic gentamicin than people in other lines of work. The drug is used to treat both poultry and humans.

What’s worse, there is a good chance these poultry workers could spread their E. coli infection to the community at large.  Poultry work is dirty business, and many of these employees launder their uniforms at home.   Anyone in the family who handles these soiled uniforms would be at risk of developing drug resistant E. coli.

According to the Johns Hopkins study, which was published in the journal “Environmental Health Perspective” gentamicin is used in the poultry industry more than any other antibiotic.  Antibiotics are routinely added to feed and given to chickens when they're sick, to prevent illnesses, and for growth enhancement.

Massive demand for chicken has led to factory farming, which cramps many thousands of birds together in a single environment – an ideal environment for the growth of E. coli and other pathogens.  The use of growth enhancers, such as hormones and antibiotics, have helped create bigger chickens that are more appealing to consumers.  But this comes at a price, as E. coli and other bacteria are more likely to develop antibiotic resistance the more they are exposed to the drugs.  Similar antibiotics are used in the pork and beef industries.


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