Thursday, April 12, 2012

How Much Do Super Diseases Cost Us?

Pretty short post today, but I just read a really interesting piece by Ezra Klein on the effects of antibiotic use in our beef and the implications for our health care costs. Here's a few choice excerpts that I found particularly frightening:
"70 percent of the antibiotics used in this country -- 70 percent! -- go into livestock production. And that's before you even get to the antibiotics that are used on animals who actually fall ill. 
The reason is simple enough: If we didn't pump our livestock full of antibiotics, they would get sick. They are, after all, packed into dim and dirty enclosures. They're stacked on top of one another. And they're being fed food they didn't evolve to eat. All of this makes animals sick. But rather than raise them in a way that doesn't make them sick, but costs somewhat more, we just keep them on constant doses of antibiotics.
And then we eat them. Which means we get constant, low-grade doses of these antibiotics. Which means common bacteria get constant, low-grade doses of these antibiotics. And there's mounting evidence that this background exposure to antibiotics is contributing to the startling rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria."
I have to admit, for all of my knowledge of what goes into certain foods, I really didn't know that that many antibiotics were used (primarily in cows, so beef and milk) in producing our livestock. Numerous studies have been done by the WHO and other groups that have shown that the large increase in antibiotic-resistance diseases is largely due to the widespread use of antibiotics in our livestock. The way it works is this: cows get a consistent, low-dose of antibiotics, we eat the cows, so we, too, get a consistent, low-dose of antibiotics. Enter bacteria we encounter all the time. And voila, they're resistant. Overuse of antibiotics, it is widely known, creates resistant diseases. This is just about the textbook definition of overuse.

The FDA and others have proposed banning the use of certain types of antibiotics in livestock before, but the beef industry lobbied heavily against it. Unfortunately, the FDA's new measures to limit certain antibiotics for human use only (so they can actually kill the resistant bugs) are apparently only voluntary. So basically the company just has to disclose that the drug is used in animals on the label. Needless to say, this probably won't help and isn't a strong enough measure.

In any case, I'm an economist-in-training, (or I'd like to think so) not a health expert, so how does this affect you and I from an economic standpoint? Well, you need not look too far into the article to find out: antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections cost the U.S. about $50 billion in health care costs per year. That's not chump change. So why don't we just set aside certain classes of antibiotics for human use? Well, the beef industry doesn't seem to want that, because it would cost more. But how much more could that cost, really? We have to think about the cost-benefit analysis here. Apparently, the National Academy of Sciences did a study to determine just that, and it found that it would cost about $5-10 more per person in the U.S. So, the total cost if applied over the entirety of the U.S. would be $3.1 billion. 

Looking at this from a cost-benefit point of view, it seems pretty worth the trade-off, given that we'd save around $47 billion, and probably even more in the long run, since diseases are only going to become more resistant. If you want to talk about controlling health care costs, a good place to start is making sure the food we eat is actually healthier, and not, you know, breeding super-staph.