G20 Executive Talk Series

September 2016

Branded Story / Ruma

Authored by: Gwyn Jones

Antibiotic Use in Livestock Farming

Antimicrobial resistance and the threat this poses to the future viability of antibiotics continues to be hotly debated. The main topic remains how to preserve the efficacy of current antibiotics for treating human bacterial infections and maintain their role in modern medicine, for example during cancer treatment and routine surgery, without jeopardising our food supplies or animal welfare.

The discovery of antibiotics has enabled us to fight bacterial infections. However, resistance is a naturally-occurring phenomenon that develops as bacteria defend themselves against attack, so any antibiotic use can lead to resistance. In fact, resistant bacteria that are millions of years old, pre-dating modern medicine, have been found in the ice caps.

As well as their use in human medicine, antibiotics are used worldwide in livestock production and continued access to them plays a key part in feeding an ever-increasing world population as well as ensuring optimum animal welfare. However, it is acknowledged that agricultural use of antibiotics can contribute to resistance in humans, but the extent and mechanism of this is widely disputed and needs further research.

Irrespective of identifying the specific routes through which resistance may be developing, it is important for antibiotics to be used responsibly in both human and veterinary medicine. As bacteria are ubiquitous and do not respect geographical or species boundaries, we all need to work together to combat this serious threat.

To look more closely at use in farmed livestock, antibiotics are used to treat or prevent disease and, in some countries, for growth promotion. They are a vital veterinary tool to protect animal health and animal welfare. Innovations and new antibiotics in the veterinary field are unlikely to happen in the short to medium term, where we are likely to see development of new products directed at human medicine, so first of all, we need to take action globally to keep the antibiotics we currently use working effectively. This will help us to continue to produce the quantity and quality of food we need to feed our growing populations.

Secondly, while there is only a small risk of antibiotic use in animals leading to resistance problems in humans, this does not absolve farmers from sharing in the global response to this threat. Unnecessary use of antibiotics, for example to treat viral diseases or to promote growth, wastes money and increases the risk of resistance.

This means we need farmers around the world to reduce, refine and replace their farm production antibiotic use to preserve the efficacy of antibiotics available to them and to human medicine. This may well be a difficult message, especially for farmers in developing countries where failures in pharmaceutical or regulatory infrastructures, or poor welfare conditions, have increased reliance on farm antibiotics.

So while the challenges in developed countries can revolve around supply chains, market pressure and communication, in developing countries it’s extended veterinary services that are needed to help farmers get the right medicine for treating their animals and to use those medicines at the right time and in the right way. For antibiotics in particular it is important to use the right dose for the full course of treatment as low doses and reduced treatments will increase the risk of resistance.

Responsible use also means using antibiotics “as little as possible and as much as necessary” – in other words, managing farms to reduce the risk of infection by improving hygiene, using good quality feed, giving the animals access to fresh water, using vaccines and controlling the movement of animals and people into and around the farm through good biosecurity practises.

Antibiotics should be used for animal health and welfare justifications, rather than economic reasons, so they should not be used for growth promotion. Animals, like humans, will inevitably become ill and antibiotics should be used to treat bacterial infections and only on the instruction or prescription
by the veterinary surgeon responsible for the animals, where such services are available.

Free guidelines summarising all these measures for responsible use are available for vets and farmers to download at www.ruma.org.uk.

In conclusion, RUMA asks the G20 to:
■ Appreciate the full complexity of the issues around antimicrobial resistance in terms of the causes, the role of antibiotics in humans and animals, and the challenges around tackling resistance sustainably and effectively
■ Recognise the areas in which responsible use is already happening
■ Work with regulators and vets in each country to understand the challenges more fully, and develop bespoke, workable solutions that are specific, measurable, achievable and sustainable for those involved.

Gwyn Jones is Chairman of the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance.