How to use antibiotics on farm animals

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The discovery of antibiotics in the mid-19th century was a very important scientific achievement with successful widespread application for human medicine starting in the 1940s.

Decades of research and development of numerous antibiotics helped to keep bacterial infections under control and save countless lives. Antibiotics have been used not only for human treatment but also for animals.

Besides being used for treatment, antibiotics are also used for prophylaxis and for growth promotion of farm animals, which was banned in some countries and throughout the European Union. Yet, the ban on antibiotics growth promoters, while certainly leading to a reduction in use, does not mean that antibiotics have been abandoned completely.

Clever use of antibiotics combines reduction of quantity and strategic planning of its application. It is a vital issue for modern industrial farming with a contradictive situation: economical efficacy on one hand, ensuring enough assets for further development and meeting the high food safety standards on the other, ensuring quality and safe products for human consumption.

To some extent, the situation in animal production was provoked by the antibiotics growth promoter ban, resulting in overall reduction of antibiotics use, but increased therapeutic antibiotics treatments at the same time. As a consequence, new resistant strains of bacteria emerged, affecting food animals and people; however it is related most likely to the misuse or overuse of therapeutic antibiotics, developing multi-resistant strains.

Another issue is the influence of antibiotics use on food safety. The case with resistant E.coli four years ago in Germany, where salads containing contaminated wheat germs were the cause of several deaths, clearly showed the significance of clever antibiotics use and moreover the importance of strict bio-security measures, which have to be implemented in all aspects of food production.

With this regard, proper disinfection becomes more and more important for farm bio-security, ensuring protection of animals during the whole production cycle. Minimising the risk of infections and consequential antibiotics treatments prevents multi-resistant bacteria development and contributes to both food safety and animal welfare. As a result, proper disinfection leads to better production results and profitability of the modern industrial farming.

A significant reduction in the use of antibiotics could be achieved. This is partly based on a significant reduction of ammonia, hydrogen sulphide and moisture, which minimise the negative influence of a farm’s micro-environment on animal health.

More people in hospitals are becoming infected with resistant bacteria that doctors can’t treat with antibiotics. In Europe, around 25,000 people die a year because of this. Because of a long and intensive use of antibiotics in animal husbandry, these bacteria have become resistant to most antibiotics used in hospitals.

Healthy people won’t die of these killer bugs, but to people with a strongly reduced general resistance, such as cancer patients, they can be lethal, MRSA develops on pig farms and with transporting of piglets and finishers, the bacteria have spread rapidly.

In certain countries, up to 90 per cent of poultry in supermarkets are infected. The number of antibiotics working against ESBL is limited. In most countries, the situation is still manageable, but has already become critical in Greece and Turkey where it is almost impossible to treat infected patients with antibiotics that work. In order to avoid this horror scenario, antibiotic use in the livestock industry has to be minimised. This is possible with vaccinations against diseases, better feed and better housing.

Our chicken filet and pork chop may become more expensive, but I have no problem with that if it ensures me of a risk free hospital and ensures a healthy (health-wise and economically) living for farmers. It is not too late, but it is up to governments in cooperation with the feed and food chain to resist the lobby of animal drug companies and make a clear move in reducing antibiotics use in livestock-for a healthier future.

This misuse of antibiotics in all areas- human medicine, veterinary medicine, animal production and plant protection-led the FAO to write a 2005 paper, ‘The responsible use of antibiotics in aquaculture’, to raise awareness of the antibiotics resistance problem in fish farming and related sectors. The document focuses on antibiotics misuse and the concomitant threat of resistance development, which is seen as a public health concern affecting the population worldwide.

In its opening statement, the authors remarked, “Antibiotic resistance as a phenomenon is, in itself, not surprising. Nor is it new. It is however, newly worrying because it is accumulating and accelerating, while the world’s tools for combating it decrease in power and number’’.

Diseases and pathogens are part of all intensive farming. In aquaculture, a ‘natural mortality’ of 10-25 per cent is considered to be normal in grow-out systems. Although banned in most countries, in many cases, antibiotics are used to combat this problem, whether as growth promoters or specifically against bacterial infections.

Antibiotics are very valuable substances and it is important to preserve their activity for the future. This means that they should be used wisely for the treatment of diseases. Knowledge about the presence of antibiotics resistance, understanding of the transfer of bacteria genes as well as understanding of the spread of resistance bacteria and as a result possible reduction of resistant bacteria may lead to the actions that to a certain extent reduce the problem of antibiotics resistance.

Banning veterinary medicines is thought not to be advisable, as it is widely felt that improved education and ‘’responsible use’’ are the way forward, providing vets take the lead. However, we all need to work together to check the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production.

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By:Arinze Onebunne

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