A Centers for Disease Control report says drug-resistant "superbugs" pose an "urgent" threat to public health.
The CDC report is the first to identify how many people die annually -- 23,000 -- from infections that no longer respond to antibiotics due to their overuse. It is also the first government report to confirm the link between resistance and the use of antibiotics in livestock.
CDC Director Thomas Frieden warned that without scaling back use of antibiotics, we risk letting common bacterial infections become deadly again.
"We will soon be in a post-antibiotic era if we're not careful," Frieden said. "For some patients and some microbes, we are already there."
According to the report, some 2 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur each year, though Frieden notes these are minimal estimates including only hospital infections, not cases from dialysis centers, nursing homes or other settings.
The report also warns that half of antibiotic use in humans is unnecessary and should be stopped. Unfortunately, Frieden said, "Patients demand antibiotics and feel their doctor has not done an adequate job if they don't get a prescription."
Additionally, "widespread use of antibiotics in agriculture has resulted in increased resistance in infections in humans," Frieden said.
At least 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used to speed growth in farm animals and prevent disease among livestock packed into crowded feedlots. The drugs are administered routinely and in low doses, creating an ideal environment for bacteria to develop resistance.
Infections spread through contaminated meat that isn't handled or cooked properly, or through water contaminated with animal waste.
Both the livestock and pharmaceutical industries have disputed this charge for many years. The Animal Health Institute, a lobbying group representing pharmaceutical companies, said that "of the 18 specific antibiotic-resistant threats discussed in the report, only two have possible connections to antibiotic use in food animals."
The link has been suspected since as far back as the 1960s, and repeated attempts at new legislation or FDA guidelines have been blocked in Congress.