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A New Public Health Threat on the Farm

If Mike Culbreath had gotten sick only five years ago, he probably would have recovered in a few days. That's what his doctors will tell you. The antibiotic he took used to cure people fast. But when Culbreath got a common infection earlier this year and took the pills, he almost died.

"Worst thing I've ever had," he says. "That's for sure."

Culbreath runs his family's horse farm near Nashville. He looks a little like Paul Bunyan. He tells the story as he and his wife give the horses their morning hay. He says it just hit him one evening—wham.

Mike Culbreath got a common infection, took antibiotics to cure it, and almost died. Click photo to enlarge

Photo: Daniel Zwerdling
"I could drink a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola and I would have to go to the bathroom five times within 15 minutes of drinking it," he recalls. "It would go right through you."

So Culbreath went to his family doctor and asked him what he thought was wrong.

"He really didn't say ... he said, 'You might have eaten something that disagreed.' And I said, 'Well, I haven't eaten anything.' He said, 'Well, you know, you'll probably be all right.' He gave me some kind of light antibiotic. He told me, 'Be sure and take them as prescribed, and take all of them,' " Culbreath explains.

That antibiotic was Cipro. It stands for ciprofloxacin. This antibiotic came on the market in the late 1980s and since then has become one of the most important drugs in the world because it can treat all kinds of serious diseases, including anthrax. But Culbreath kept getting worse. He lost almost 20 pounds from diarrhea. By now, he was so scared he went to the hospital.

"And the minute I walked in the room and saw him in clinic, literally hunched over—his eyes are very sunken-looking, his face is sunken-looking—it was pretty clear that this gentleman was very ill," remembers Dr. Stacy Davis, a cardiologist at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville. Culbreath sees her occasionally for a heart condition.

Davis says she could see he was incredibly dehydrated. "But we didn't expect the next thing we found. The next thing we found was he was so dehydrated [that] his kidneys had virtually shut down. He was actually on the verge of kidney failure."

Davis says if he'd waited two more days to come to the hospital, Mike Culbreath might be dead. The lab tests show that he had a whopping infection that people often get from eating chicken. It's caused by a kind of bacteria called campylobacter. You probably know about salmonella, right? Federal researchers say campylobacter infections are actually the most common kind of food poisoning in America. They think roughly two million people get sick from it every year, and until recently, Cipro easily cured it. Not this time.

"I mean, it was very clear to me that what he had been treated with wasn't working and he needed to use something else," says Davis.

And here's one of the most troubling parts of this story: Researchers warned years ago that this might happen, and the farm industry used the drug anyway.

The case of Mike Culbreath symbolizes a national problem. Ever since farmers started giving a form of Cipro to chickens around five years ago, thousands of people have gotten camplobacter infections that are resistant to the drug. That's according to a government survey.

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