Quantity of antibiotics used in livestock is vast, says report

An image taken through a microscope from a canine skin infection showing multidrug-resistant bacteria (MRSP, similar to MRSA) among inflammatory cells.
An image taken through a microscope from a canine skin infection showing multidrug-resistant bacteria (MRSP, similar to MRSA) among inflammatory cells.

The majority of antibiotics in the US considered medically important to humans are sold for use in agriculture, a new report into antimicrobial resistance reveals.

The expert panel that produced the report said reducing antibiotic use in agriculture was one of the key strategies  in tackling the growing threat of drug resistance.

“The quantity of antibiotics used in livestock is vast,” said the report, entitled Tackling Drug-Resistant Infections Globally: Final Report and Recommendations – The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.

“In the US, for example, of the antibiotics defined as medically important for humans by the US Food and Drug Administration, over 70 percent (by weight) are sold for use in animals,” it said.

The authors said there were circumstances where antibiotics were required in agriculture and aquaculture to maintain animal welfare and food security.

“However, much of their global use is not for treating sick animals, but rather to prevent infections or simply to promote growth.

“Many countries are also likely to use more antibiotics in agriculture than in humans but they do not even hold or publish the information.

“The majority of scientists see this as a threat to human health, given that wide-scale use of antibiotics encourages the development of resistance, which can spread to affect humans and animals alike.”

The panel, whose report was commissioned by the British Government and the Wellcome Trust, proposed three steps to improve antibiotic use in animals, the first being a 10-year target to reduce unnecessary use of the drugs in agriculture.

The second measure would involving restricting certain types of highly critical antibiotics.

“Too many antibiotics that are now last-line drugs for humans are being used in agriculture; action should be taken on this urgently.”

The third prong would involve improving transparency among food producers on the antibiotics used to raise meat, which would enable consumers to make more informed purchase decisions.

Beyond agriculture, the panel, chaired by Lord Jim O’Neill, proposed a raft of measures, including a massive public awareness campaign to raise awareness of antimicrobial resistance; improved hygiene to prevent the spread of infection; improved global surveillance of drug resistance and antimicrobial consumption in humans and animals; better diagnostics to cut unnecessary antibiotic use; promoting the development and use of vaccines and other alternatives; providing greater recognition and reward for those working in the field of infectious diseases; and better incentives for investment in developing new drugs or improving existing ones.

“The magnitude of the problem is now accepted,” the panel said.

“We estimate that by 2050, 10 million lives a year and a cumulative $US100 trillion of economic output are at risk due to the rise of drug-resistant infections if we do not find proactive solutions now to slow down the rise of drug resistance.

“Even today, 700,000 people die of resistant infections every year.

“Antibiotics are a special category of antimicrobial drugs that underpin modern medicine as we know it: if they lose their effectiveness, key medical procedures (such as gut surgery, caesarean sections, joint replacements, and treatments that depress the immune system, such as chemotherapy for cancer) could become too dangerous to perform.”

Most of the direct and much of the indirect impact of antimicrobial resistance would fall on low and middle-income countries, the authors said.

Professor Stuart Reid, the principal of Britain’s Royal Veterinary College and an expert on antimicrobial resistance, said increasing resistance to antibiotics presented one of the most serious threats to public health.

“I encourage the Government to dedicate resources to this issue and afford it the prominence it deserves.

“In addressing this issue, the Government should take into account the impact of the use of antibiotics on animal health and animal welfare, particularly in commercial farming, and recognise the importance of veterinary science and human medicine working together to tackle the threat that resistance presents.

“This is a prime example of the need for a One Health approach – the interdisciplinary co-operation between human medicine and veterinary science, as well as an understanding of environmental, social and economic factors, in seeking a holistic solution to the crisis.”

The full report can be read here

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