Dear EarthTalk: Global population numbers continue to rise, as does the poverty, suffering and environmental degradation that goes with it. Has the U.S., under Obama, increased or at least restored its family planning aid to developing countries that was cut when the Bush Administration first took office? -- T. Healy, via e-mail

The short answer is yes. President Obama is much more interested in family planning around the world than his predecessor was. One of Obama's first acts upon assuming office in 2009 was the restoration of funding for the United Nations Population Fund. Former President George W. Bush withheld some $244 million in aid to the UNFPA over the previous seven years. UNFPA works with developing countries around the world to "reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect."

Reinstated U.S. funding will help the agency pursue its goals of universal access to reproductive health services, universal primary education and closing of the gender gap in education, reducing maternal and infant mortality, increasing life expectancy and decreasing HIV infection rates.

Along with restoring UNFPA funding, Obama also overturned the so-called "Global Gag Rule" that prohibited groups funded by the U.S. Agency in International Development from using any government or non-government funds for "providing advice, counseling or information regarding abortion, or lobbying a foreign government to legalize or make abortion available." Foreign nonprofits were already not allowed to use U.S. funds to pay for abortions, but the Global Gag Rule -- first instituted as the `Mexico City Policy' in 1984 by the Reagan White House, then overturned by Clinton and later reinstated by George W. Bush -- went further by restricting the free speech rights of government grantees and stifling public debate on the contentious topic. Foreign NGOs that accept U.S. funding still cannot perform abortions, but can discuss the options openly with the families they serve.

"For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us," said Obama upon overturning the policy as one of his first acts in office. "It is time that we end the politicization of this issue."

Of course, advocates for increased family planning are pressuring the Obama administration to step up its efforts aboard even more. The Institute of Medicine, one of four government-affiliated nonprofit "academies" of experts, recommended last spring that the U.S. increase its spending on global health by some 50 percent over the $63 billion pledged by the Obama White House over the next six years.

Groups providing family planning services domestically would also like to see the Obama administration step up funding for their programs, not only to improve the quality of life for American families but to save money and reduce abortions as well: A 2009 report by the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute concluded that publicly funded family planning services at both hospitals and non-profit clinics saves taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent by preventing nearly two million pregnancies and 810,000 abortions per year.

Contacts: UNFPA,; USAID,; Institute of Medicine,; Guttmacher Institute,

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that the use of antibiotics in raising farm animals is threatening to make bacteria overall more resistant to antibiotics, which has serious life and death implications for people. Can you enlighten and advise what is being done about this? -- Robert Gelb, Raleigh, N.C.

Most medical doctors would agree that antibiotic drugs -- which stave off bacterial infections from staph to salmonella to bacterial pneumonia -- are among the most important tools in modern medicine. But public health advocates, environmentalists and even many doctors worry that our society's overuse and misuse of antibiotics is making bacteria more resistant and thus limiting the effectiveness of these lifesaving drugs.

Bacterial resistance to our antibiotics simply means longer, more serious and more costly illnesses. The Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, a nonprofit that conducts research around the world on antibiotic resistance, estimates that antibiotic resistance has been responsible for upwards of $16 billion annually in extra costs to the U.S. health care system in recent years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers antibiotic resistance one of its top concerns.

While misuse of antibiotics for human health problems is definitely a concern -- those with a valid need for antibiotics who don't finish off their prescriptions, for example, could effectively help bacteria develop resistance and make it stronger for when it infects its next host -- a larger issue is the misuse of antibiotics to treat the common cold and flu and other viral infections which do not involve bacteria. The more antibiotics we use willy-nilly, the faster bacteria will develop resistance, rendering many of the drugs modern medicine has come to rely on obsolete.

Of even greater concern is the preponderance of antibiotics used down on the farm. "Antibiotics often are used on industrial farms not only to treat sick animals but also to offset [the health effects of] crowding and poor sanitation, as well as to spur animal growth," reported the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. Indeed, researchers estimate that up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to healthy food animals to artificially expedite their growth and compensate for the effects of unsanitary farm conditions. "The routine use of antibiotics in food animals presents a serious and growing threat to human health because it creates new strains of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria," says Pew.

So what can we do to curtail the overuse and misuse of antibiotics? For one, we should not prescribe or use antibiotics to (mis)treat viral infections. Beyond being conscientious with our own bodies, we should also urge farmers to reduce their use of these drugs. Pew and other groups are trying to muster public support for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA, H.R. 1549/S. 619), which if enacted would withdraw from food animal production the routine use of seven classes of antibiotics vitally important to human health unless animals are diseased or drug companies can prove that their use does not harm human health. Hundreds of groups, including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatricians, Infectious Diseases Society of America and World Health Organization support the legislation. Pew is urging concerned citizens to call their representatives and senators and advocate for pushing the legislation into committee hearings.

Contacts: Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics,; CDC,; Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming,

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