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Up to 8 million US women—that’s one out of nine—suffer from painful and persistent urinary tract infections (UTI) each year, and now we may know why: It’s likely that many of them have become infected with a newly antibiotic-resistant strain of E. coli, believed by researchers to spread through poultry raised with the routine use of antibiotics. These findings so closely correlate to the rise of urinary tract infectionss in the past decade, that the Infectious Diseases Society of America has had to revise its recommendations on which drugs to prescribe.
The compelling research, just published in The Atlantic and reported on by ABC News, was compiled by Maryn McKenna, a journalist with the Food and Environment Reporting Network and author of the book SUPERBUG.
However, investigators have been examining the connection between antibiotics, chickens, and human infections since at least 2001. What has been uncovered is a subset of strains called “ExPEC,” for “extra-intestinal pathogenic E. coli“—meaning that the E. coli can move from the gut to other areas of the body, such as the urinary tract, via the bloodstream. In fact, ExPEC E. coli are responsible for up to 40,000 deaths from sepsis in the US each year.
In addition to the death toll, there are economic repercussions too. The annual domestic costs of treating UTIs is more than $1 billion, including hospitalizations for serious complications and intermediate care for patients with drug-resistant infections.
The ExPEC E. coli cause more illnesses than O157—the strain that killed 3 children after eating Jack-in-the-Box meals in 1993 and which prompted the USDA to declare it illegal to distribute. But because ExPEC E. coli is responsible for a slower-moving epidemic, researchers are concerned that the agricultural industry may not be sufficiently held accountable for their role in the spread of these drug-resistant bacteria. As McKenna says, “This will be far more politically complex, because it will require addressing the economic imperatives that drive farmers to use antibiotics, and consumers’ role in supporting large-scale agriculture as well.”
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