Turning grief into action: Moms and antibiotic misuse

In December 2007, I flew to Chicago to meet the team of researchers who spotted the first known cases of community-associated MRSA in the US in the mid-1990s, and who have been agitating ever since for recognition and action to beat back the rising tide of antibiotic resistance. It was grey and snowy outside their shabby suite of offices, carved out of University of Chicago’s long-replaced children’s hospital. I sat in a green-tinged conference room piled with stacks of articles while Everly Macario — a Harvard-trained ScD in public health, the daughter and sister of physicians — described how MRSA killed her toddler son Simon in less than 24 hours.

“We have no idea where he got it,” she told me. “We have no idea why he was susceptible.”

Simon Sparrow was 17 months old in April 2004, a big, sturdy child with no health problems except a touch of asthma. The day before he died, he woke up feverish and disoriented, startling his parents with a cry unlike anything they had heard from him before. It was a busy morning — his older sister had a stomach virus — but they got him to the pediatric ER, got him checked, and brought him home when doctors found nothing unusual going on.

A few hours later, Everly was working at home, watching both kids, and Simon’s breathing changed. Her husband James, a history professor, had driven a few hours away to give a speech. She called a friend who is a pediatrician, held the phone up to Simon’s nose and mouth so she could hear, and then got back on the line.

“Hang up,” her friend said. “Call 911.”

She did, and then she called her husband, who reversed course and began tearing back to the city. At the hospital, Simon failed rapidly: His heart raced, his blood pressure crashed, his lungs filled with fluid. His skin darkened with pinpoint hemorrhages. He died the following morning.

After his death, Everly decided to try to combat the little-known organism that had killed him. She joined the University of Chicago group where I met her, the MRSA Research Center, hoping to keep what happened to Simon from happening to another child.

I am thinking of Everly today because, this morning, she took another step in her battle to combat antibiotic resistance and spread education about its dangers. She stood up at an event in Washington, DC and called on mothers just like her to join a new campaign, Moms for Antibiotic Awareness.

“Simon’s death sounded an alarm that my fellow moms across this country need to hear,” she said. “Antibiotics are increasingly ineffective against life-threatening infections, and the lives of our children and loved ones are at stake.”

The new campaign is sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts, who were co-sponsors two years ago of a massive effort and report to document the damage that industrial-scale confinement agriculture does to workers, the environment, and to everyone who depends on antibiotics to keep them healthy and safe.

To launch the campaign, Pew commissioned a national survey (full results here) of 804 mothers of children younger than 16 from across the political spectrum. The analysts, Public Opinion Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, found that moms across the country are ripe to hear the message that overuse of antibiotics in farming, without accountability or surveillance, is undermining the public health. They found:

  • 63 percent say there should be more regulation of very large-scale farming (26 percent said, “A lot more”)
  • 80 percent said they are concerned about antibiotic use on such farms (42 percent said “Very concerned’)
  • 83 percent were willing to ban the tiny continual doses known as growth promoters
  • 80 percent want farms to involve veterinarians in their use of antibiotics, which is not now required
  • 72 percent want farms to stop using antibiotics that are identical to ones used in human medicine, because the antibiotic resistance generated on farms makes those drugs useless for treating humans.

By pure coincidence, the event at which Everly spoke is not the only one today in which moms will speak out about antibiotic misuse in farming. This evening (Tuesday, May 3, 8:30 pm ET), the organization STOP Foodborne Illness will host a free webinar, “Do You Want Antibiotics With That?”, featuring Dr. Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Steve Roach of the Food Animal Concerns Trust, and me. The three of us will outline the abundant evidence that links  antibiotic overuse in farming; the rise of antibiotic resistance and the loss of vital drugs; and the increase in antibiotic-resistant illnesses in farm-workers, kids, and vulnerable adults. (UPDATE: Here’s the link for replaying the webinar audio and slides.)

Until recently, STOP Foodborne Illness was called Safe Tables Our Priority. It was founded, out of grief and outrage, by mothers whose children died in the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1992. Its work is one more example of mothers being propelled by their sorrow into agitating for change — too late for their own lost children, but possibly in time to protect the rest of us.

(Simon’s story is told in my book SUPERBUG. The MRSA Research Center’s website — Macario no longer works there —  is here. Studies and references on antibiotic overuse in agriculture are archived by Pew’s ongoing Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, here. My coverage of livestock-associated MRSA, which arose in pigs given agricultural antibiotics, is here and here.)

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