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Agriculture shifts from being 'fall guy' of antimicrobial resistance

Antibiotic resistance has never veered far from the minds of those in the farming sector but recently the issue was put back firmly on the political agenda and for once, farmers are out of the firing line. Olivia Midgley reports.

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David Cameron’s words about a world being ‘cast back into the dark ages of medicine’ due to antibiotic resistance were more than enough to reignite the debate over the use of antibiotics in humans and animals.


Critics may have slammed the prime minister’s claims as ‘fear-mongering’, however England’s chief medical officer Prof Dame Sally Davies believes the facts speak for themselves.


Increasing resistance to antibiotics and a lack of new drugs coming onto the market poses what the CMO calls a ‘catastrophic threat’ to the global population.


Calling for politicians to act now, Prof Davies said if this ‘discovery void’ is not addressed, the world could see routine deaths from minor surgery within 20 years.


She highlighted the ‘market failure’ which has seen no new classes of antibiotics for more than 25 years, despite a new infectious disease being discovered every year for the past 30 years.


Where at one time the farming sector was blamed for having a fundamental role in antimicrobial resistance in humans due to the transmission of resistant animal pathogens to human pathogens, it seems the spotlight has moved back to the medical industry.


A report this week by the Select Committee on Science and Technology ‘Ensuring access to working antimicrobials’ acknowledged ‘the main cause of resistance in humans is the overuse/inappropriate use of antibiotics in human medicine’.


MPs stated although ‘there is circumstantial evidence antimicrobial resistance can be transmitted from animal pathogens to human pathogens although the evidence base is incomplete’.


The parliamentary steering group called for a ‘drastic reduction’ in the amount of antibiotics used in medicine, with no equivalent recommendation for a similarly drastic reduction in farm use.


British Veterinary Association (BVA) past president Peter Jones welcomed the report’s findings, saying for too long the agricultural sector had been used as ‘fall guy’ over the issue of resistance.


Mr Jones said: “I am pleased the overuse of medicines in humans has been acknowledged.


“The biggest problem is over prescription on the human side, but until a few years ago the veterinary sector was constantly blasted for its misuse.”


Mr Jones said the animal health sector had united in its efforts to tackle resistance and promote the responsible use of antibiotics.


However, the Select Committee did raise the issue of ‘routine use on healthy animals’ and recommended ‘the Government takes action to ‘ensure the use of antibiotics in farm animals is strictly required for therapeutic use’ – something which the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics has long campaigned for.


Mr Jones added: “The antis constantly blame vets for using antibiotics preventatively and that shows a real misunderstanding.


“Yes we have a duty of care to our animals and if they have an infection we have to treat it. With pigs showing signs of dysentery or calves that are coughing we know without treating them preventively there will be a problem the next day.


“I think we have to distinguish between treatment to prevent diseases becoming a problem and a blanket treatment of animals to make up for bad husbandry.”


John Fitzgerald, secretary general for the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture, added: “Antibiotics are used preventatively in human medicine but it is always agriculture which is singled out. It is easy to single out a pig or poultry farmer but people forget patients are given antibiotics when they are operated on to fight the infections which they could pick up.


“It is about getting the balance between propping up a bad farming process against what is needed when a vet says there is a problem and we need to use antibiotics.”


Mr Jones said vets knew they had a responsibility to use products responsibly and actively saved newer antibiotics to use as a last resort.


Along with the medical sector, veterinarians have been calling for funding to be put in place in order for new drugs to be developed.


But with the cost of bringing an individual antimicrobial drug to market, thought to be in the region of £750 million to £1.2 billion, development has been put on the back-burner.


National Office of Animal Health chief executive Phil Sketchley said pharmaceutical companies were more likely to plough research into human medicine due to the veterinary sector being a fraction of the size in terms of market value.


Mr Sketchley said the industry had also been calling for funding for better diagnostics, for example a pen test to enable vets to be almost instantly reassured the antibiotic they have chosen is the ‘best drug for the job’.


Gathering data on which antibiotics are being used and in what quantities is also key to tackling the resistance problem and over the past few years the Veterinary Medicines Directorate has been collating data on the sales of antimicrobial products authorised for use as veterinary medicines in the UK.


Mr Fitzgerald added: “I think this is critical. We need a better handle on where we are using antibiotics so we can look at how to reduce them. By collating data we will be able to make fair comparisons and see which drugs are being used on which animals.”


Mr Fitzgerald said research had shown resistance levels in animal bacteria had stayed ‘roughly the same for many years’.


“There is not a clinical crisis in animal medicine but we must make sure it does not contribute to the resistance in human medicine,” he added.


He said whatever action is taken to reduce antibiotic use in animals should have an effect on resistance in humans, but there was very little evidence to prove the theory.


He pointed to evidence gathered by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in the Netherlands, where antibiotic levels were slashed, but human resistance remained static.


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