Senior figures from the medical profession have joined forces with groups campaigning on antibiotics to call for an end to ‘routine, purely preventative antibiotic use in groups of healthy animals’.
In a letter to the Times, the 20 signatories, who include the presidents of the Royal Society of Medicine and the UK Faculty of Public Health, describe routine antibiotic use as ‘inconsistent with all responsible-use guidance.’
The signatories, who also include the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics and groups campaigning on MRSA and E. coli, refer to figures suggesting antibiotic usage in livestock in the UK is on the rise.
The letter cites a report by Defra’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate, which revealed total UK veterinary sales in 2014 of antibiotics classified as ‘critically important in human medicine’ increased by 3 per cent to a new record high.
The antibiotics classified as the most critically important human medicine are the fluoroquinolones and the modern cephalosporins.
Veterinary sales of these antibiotics have almost doubled since 2005, the VMD report shows.
The total sales of antibiotics licensed for food animals only also increased by 4 per cent, according to the VMD report.
The letter also refers to a recent high-profile study by researchers in China revealing the discovery of a new form of resistance in E. coli in pigs and, to a lesser extent, in people in China.
The study highlighted bacteria resistance to colistin, an antibiotic used as a last-resort in human medicine. The findings prompted fresh warnings from experts the world could be facing a future without effective antibiotics unless were taken to address resistance.
The letter highlighted figures in the VMD report showing colistin-resistant salmonella had now been found in UK livestock – 5 per cent of salmonella from egg-laying birds were resistant to the antibiotic which can be used in laying birds.
The VMD pointed to evidence in its report that some salmonella are naturally more resistant to colistin.
But the coalition behind the letter argued, until greater analysis of the resistant salmonella was done, it could not be assumed the resistance was natural rather than due to the fact colistin is being used in laying birds.
The letter also cited figures showing farm animals account for almost two thirds of all antibiotics used in 26 European countries.
Medical experts called for the current revision of the EU Veterinary Medicinal Products legislation to introduce a ban on the purely preventative treatment of groups of animals where no disease has been diagnosed in any of the animals being treated.
The European Commission proposals for the new legislation currently allow routine preventative use to continue.
The letter claimed, although the UK Government said it was opposed to routine preventative use of antibiotics in animals, ‘it does not yet support proposals to end preventative treatment of groups of healthy animals’.
It cited a letter by the VMD to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics stating that it did support prophylactic antibiotic use in groups of animals before clinical signs of disease appear, in circumstances where there could be a high risk of infection occurring.
Babulal Sethia, President of the Royal Society of Medicine said: “While GPs strive to curb prescribing practices, the farming sector also needs to move towards more selective antibiotic administration.
“The preventative treatment of groups of healthy animals when no disease has been diagnosed is not responsible use.”
Dr David McCoy, a physician and director of London-based global public health charity Medact said: "The over-use of antibiotics in farm animals and its potential to accelerate antimicrobial resistance threatens to turn the clock on the history of medical advancement.
Nearly 90 per of farm antibiotic use in the UK was for group treatments of pigs and poultry, often via mass medication through feed or water, according to the letter.
The VMD clarified earlier this year that no disease diagnosis in any of the animals is required before mass medication is applied, it said.
Emma Rose from the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics said: “If animals cannot remain healthy within the conditions in which they are placed, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at our farming systems.”
The campaign has received the backing of Shadow Defra Secretary Kerry McCarthy.
She said: "If we are to truly tackle the resistance problem, which the Prime Minister has said he is committed to, routine dosing of groups of healthy animals must stop.”
Last month farming representatives in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden also called on their governments to propose a full EU ban on the routine preventative use of antibiotics.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Reducing the risk of animals developing antibiotic resistance is essential to ensure these medicines are effective in the fight against disease.
“That is why we are ensuring antibiotics are only used on farms when absolutely necessary.”