(NEW YORK) -- A growing number of medical researchers say more than eight million women are at risk of difficult-to-treat bladder infections because so-called superbugs -- organisms resistant to antibiotics and that grow in chickens -- are being transmitted to humans in the form of E. coli.
“We’re finding the same or related E. coli in human infections and in retail meat sources, specifically chicken,” says Amee Manges, epidemiologist at McGill University in Montreal.
If the medical researchers are right, this is compelling new evidence of a direct link between the pervasive, difficult-to-cure human disease and the antibiotic-fed chicken people buy at the grocery store.
“What this new research shows is, we may in fact know where it’s coming from. It may be coming from antibiotics used in agriculture,” says Maryn McKenna, reporter for the Food & Environment Reporting Network.
The research is part of a joint investigation by ABC News and Food and the Environment Reporting Network.
The Food and Drug Administration says 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to livestock and even healthy chickens to protect them from disease in cramped quarters. It also helps the chickens grow bigger and faster.
“We’re particularly interested in chickens. They, in many cases, are getting drugs from the time that they were in an egg all the way up to the time they are slaughtered,” Manges says.
The chicken industry says there could be other factors, such as overuse of antibiotics by humans, contribuing to the superbugs. The industry further cautions that there’s no study that has proven a superbug from poultry transfers directly to humans.
Researchers note that a study to prove the latter would be unethical because it would require intentionally exposing women to the bacteria. They add that there's persuasive evidence that chickens carry bacteria with the highest levels of resistance to medicine.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio