A drastic reduction of antibiotic usage in farming is required in the battle against lethal superbugs in humans, the country's vets have been warned.
The transfer of antibiotic resistance from animals to humans via meat and milk has been described as a significant factor in a "secret public health emergency" as superbugs emerge that are resistant to all but a handful of new antibiotics
"Antibiotic resistance is impacting on people now," warned consultant microbiologist Professor Martin Cormican, who said there is growing evidence that this resistance is transferring from animals into the food chain.
"People think about it as a future problem but it is not a future problem. Antibiotic resistance has an impact on the recommendations that I make every day," he said. "And while we haven't yet in Ireland had anybody with an infection that we could not treat at all, on occasions we are down to one or two options, and some of the choices that we are left with are not good choices," explained Prof Cormican.
The latest superbug (CPE) has become "the big worry (because) already there is almost nothing left that will work for it".
A drug that had previously been considered toxic for humans is now being used to treat the CPE superbug, while new drugs to treat bugs with resistance to older antibiotics are costing up to €4,000 per week per patient.
Addressing the Cattle Association of Veterinary Ireland (CAVI) conference, Prof Cormican called on vets to drastically reduce the amount of antibiotics being administered to livestock and to focus instead on improved hygiene and biosecurity measures.
"If we screw this up - and we are screwing it up - then the people who will pay for it are our friends and our families, and they will pay for it for all time, because if CPE becomes established in Ireland, we may never get rid of it, so we all have a responsibility in this," he said.
He added that the threat to human and animal health from antibiotic resistance needed to be treated as an emergency and contrasted the lack of public awareness about the issue with the awareness around the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001.
Tipperary-based vet and herd health consultant Martin Kavanagh said the reduction in antibiotic usage in farming would require new health management systems.
"The inevitable curtailment of antibiotic use will require a much greater understanding of the inter-relationship between animal genetics, environment design, feed management and the capacity of the people working with the animals (to combat animal diseases)," he said.
Mr Kavanagh cited his experience of working in Scandinavia, where there are now restrictions on the amount and type of antibiotics used by farmers and veterinary surgeons.
Prof Cormican, who is based in NUIG, was also critical of the dearth of research into the links between antibiotic usage in agriculture and antibiotic resistance in humans.
A review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) commissioned by the British government reported in 2016 that "although gaps in the evidence undoubtedly remain, there is an increasingly robust consensus that unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals and agriculture is a significant concern for human health".
The report called for restrictions and/or bans on certain types of highly important antibiotics. "Too many antibiotics that are last-line drugs for humans are being used in agriculture, sometimes without even professional oversight," it stated. It also called on food producers and retailers to improve transparency on antibiotic usage in the food chain.
Earlier this year, the European Parliament gave approval for the proposed introduction of new EU veterinary products legislation which will curb the use of certain antibiotics.