Farm antibiotics increasing the threat of untreatable human diseases

17 November 2011

Compassion in World Farming introduces 'Antibiotic Anna' to Brussels on behalf of The Alliance

Compassion in World Farming introduces 'Antibiotic Anna' to Brussels on behalf of The Alliance

A new report – Case Study of a Health Crisis – has found an alarming rise in new farm ‘superbugs’, particularly MRSA and E. coli, being passed on to humans. The report links the rise to the fact that nearly 50% of all antibiotics are used in farming and argues that one of the fundamental causes of food and animal-related antibiotic resistance is factory farming.

Most pigs, poultry and dairy cows receive antibiotics routinely, whether or not they are unwell. In fact, some European pigs spend an average of 20% of their lives on antibiotics. Joyce D'Silva, Director of Public Affairs at Compassion in World Farming, described the overuse of antibiotics as a “cheap insurance policy” for many farmers. She also warned that excessive use “on factory farms makes a world without effective antibiotics for humans ever more likely.”

The last decade has seen the emergence of entirely new E.coli and MRSA superbugs on European farms, which then spread between farms and are passed on to humans. Their resistance to antibiotics makes it even more difficult for doctors to treat affected patients, with potentially fatal delays in identifying an effective antibiotic when needed.

The report is the first to be launched by the recently founded Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, made up of Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain and was released to coincide with the expected publication of the European Commission's 5-year strategy on antimicrobial resistance on 17 November and European Antibiotic Awareness Day on 18 November.

The Alliance is calling for the overall use of antibiotics on EU farms to be halved by 2015 – with an emphasis on ending all routine, prophylactic use. It also wants major restrictions placed on the farm use of antibiotics that are ‘critically important’ in human medicine. On this note, Professor Charles Butler, Head of the Institute of Primary Care and Public Health at Cardiff University, said “it is not tenable to regard animal medicine as having marginal relevance to human health; systems are interlinked. The challenge now is to focus on antibiotic stewardship programmes that take a holistic view, incorporating all domains of antibiotic use.”

The report recognises the essential need to retain antibiotic treatment for sick animals, to prevent suffering and maintain good animal welfare, but argues this too can be significantly reduced by improving the conditions under which most farm animals are kept. Soil Association Policy Advisor Richard Young suggests we “could immediately start a Europe-wide programme of change to look after animals in ways that naturally keep them healthy.”

The report offers key recommendations to curb antibiotic use on farms in the EU are offered and veterinary surgeons must shoulder the responsibility of implementing reduction strategies. However, all of us - farmers, retailers, consumers, doctors and regulators – need to play our part in creating a farming industry that is not reliant on the use of non-essential antibiotics.

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