NHS warns Antibiotic use in farm animals ‘threatens human health’

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“Farmers need to dramatically cut the amount of antibiotics used in agriculture, because of the threat to human health, a report says,” according to BBC News.

The concern is agricultural antibiotic use is driving up levels of antibiotic resistance, leading to new “superbugs”.

The report looked at resistance to antimicrobial drugs, which includes antibiotics as well as antifungal and antiparasitical drugs. Resistance to these drugs is collectively known as antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

The report is part of an ongoing review of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) commissioned by the British Prime Minister. This review aims to provide a set of recommendations on how to address AMR globally.

The report (PDF, 737kb) was produced by an independent body chaired by the British economist Jim O’Neill. It looked specifically at antibiotic use in the environment and agriculture.

Pictured below Resistant bacteria

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What does the report say?

The report made a range of observations:

  • The evidence suggests the amount of antimicrobials used in food production internationally is at least the same as that in humans, and in some places is higher. For example, in the US more than 70% of antibiotics that are medically important for humans are used in animals.
  • This form of antimicrobial usage is likely to rise because of the economic growth, increasing wealth and food consumption in the emerging world.
  • When properly used, antibiotics are essential for treating infections in animals, but excessive and inappropriate use of the drugs is a problem.
  • A considerable amount of antibiotics are used in healthy animals to prevent infection or speed up their growth. This is particularly the case in intensive farming, where animals are kept in confined conditions.
  • Some suggest that stopping the use of antibiotics for growth promotion would be significant, particularly in lower-income settings, and would be unjustified without clearer evidence of the extent of the threat to human health.
  • In a literature review of published peer-reviewed research articles carried out as part of the report, only 5% of the 139 academic papers identified argued there was not a link between antibiotic consumption in animals and resistance in humans, while 72% found evidence of a link. The report’s authors suggest this supports a link and provides enough justification for policy makers to aim to reduce the global use of antibiotics in food production to a more appropriate level.
  • Some last-resort antibiotics for humans are being used extensively in animals, and there are no replacements currently on the way. This was illustrated by a recent study from China, which identified a gene responsible for colistin resistance in bacteria from livestock, also covered by Behind the Headlines.
  • There is concern over the potential for pollution from antimicrobial manufacture – for example, if untreated waste products containing high levels of end-products or active ingredients are discharged into water courses.
  • What does the report recommend?

    The review made three key recommendations for global action to reduce the risks described:

    • A global target to reduce antibiotic use in food production to an agreed level in livestock and fish, along with restrictions on the use of antibiotics in these animals that are important for humans.
    • The rapid development of minimum standards to reduce antimicrobial manufacturing waste being released into the environment.
    • Improved surveillance to monitor these problems, and progress against global targets.

NHS UK Reports

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