Danielle Wadsworth vividly recalls the night in late 2011 when she awoke with agonizing stomach pain. Lying on the couch in her Lewiston home, Wadsworth was violently ill for several days with what she assumed was the flu.
She’d been discharged from the emergency room at a local hospital earlier that day after undergoing some tests. She decided to sleep downstairs during what she now calls “the most horrible night of my life” to avoid waking her boyfriend.
“I kept going back and forth to the bathroom every 15 minutes and finally, I said, ‘This isn’t normal. I’m not OK,’” Wadsworth said. “So I crawled upstairs, literally on my hands and knees.”
Her boyfriend brought her back to the hospital. Three days later — hooked up to intravenous drips in both arms and losing so much blood through diarrhea that doctors considered giving her a transfusion — Wadsworth received a diagnosis: salmonella.
“I was really scared … it was excruciating,” she said.
She would later learn that she was one of 16 people in seven states known to have been sickened by an antibiotic-resistant strain of the bacteria, which was linked to ground beef sold in Hannaford supermarkets in late 2011. Wadsworth, 32, suspects that tacos she ate the night before Halloween led to her illness. She’d pinched an undercooked piece of meat from the pan as she was preparing the meal, she said.
Wadsworth is now pursuing a legal claim against Hannaford.
The experience led Wadsworth to travel to Washington, D.C. this week to argue for stronger regulations to curtail the use of antibiotics in livestock farming. She took part Wednesday in “Supermoms Against Superbugs,” an initiative of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming.
“I just think it’s very unnecessary, I think it should be regulated and I’m here to help with that,” Wadsworth said. “Hopefully my experience can open some eyes here in Congress.”
More than 50 mothers, fathers, physicians, farmers and others participated in the event.
The antibiotics that Wadsworth was prescribed at the hospital kicked her salmonella infection, she said. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned after the 2011 salmonella outbreak that the strain’s resistance to antibiotics “may be associated with an increase in the risk of hospitalization or possible treatment failure in infected individuals.”
The startling rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been called one of the world’s most pressing public health threats.
Supporters of greater regulation cite long-simmering worries that the overuse of antibiotics in livestock contributes to the rising prevalence of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that can infect humans. Many drugs used to treat illnesses in people, such as penicillin, are administered to livestock to keep them healthy.
More than 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are intended for livestock. In 2011, nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics were sold in the U.S. for meat and poultry production, four times the amount sold for sick people, according to the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming.
While most of the country’s antibiotics are destined for animals, the role that meat consumption plays in the rise of superbugs remains fiercely debated. Discerning a connection between eating meat from animals treated with antibiotics and resistance to those drugs in humans is a complicated challenge, said Dr. Stephen Sears, Maine state epidemiologist.
Pew highlighted the spread of a deadly strain of bacteria called carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, which has grown resistant to even the strongest antibiotics, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That bacteria, however, is primarily associated with hospitals, not food production, Sears said.
Overall, reducing overuse of antibiotics in people, agriculture and fish farming would benefit public health, he said. Mounting evidence indicates that exposure to antibiotics through food is contributing to the increasing prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Sears said.
“Anytime antibiotics are used injudiciously, the potential for resistance occurs,” he said.
Overprescribing of the drugs by doctors has also been implicated. Researchers estimate that about half of all prescriptions for antibiotics may be unnecessary.
The issue has sparked legislation in Congress to beef up monitoring of antibiotic use in animals.
U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-New York, a microbiologist, has reintroduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, a bill that would ban nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in food animal production.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, an industry trade group, has argued that the legislation would hamper veterinarians’ and livestock producers’ efforts to prevent disease in animals raised for food production.
Slaughter also has sponsored another bill, along with U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, that would provide federal regulators with more information about the amount and type of antibiotics given to animals raised for food.