Farm Ireland

Friday 24 November 2017

Antibiotics misuse a 'time bomb' for agriculture sector

Vet Eamon O'Connell.
Vet Eamon O'Connell.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Resistance to antibiotics is a "ticking time bomb" for the agricultural sector as vets encounter more and more cases of animals that cannot be cured by conventional drugs.

Tipperary vet Eamon O Connell said that he had come across a case of a cow with mastitis that was resistant to all antibiotics.

"A farmer milking 300 cows now has a mixed bacterial infection in a cow's udder that no antibiotic can cure. It's very, very worrying, especially given that the underuse and misuse of antibiotics is rife," he said.

Two of the biggest issues identified by the Nenagh-based vet were farmers that did not finish out the prescribed course on an animal, as well as the use of the wrong antibiotics in many situations.

"Farmers are ordering the same mastitis tubes every year, and then wondering why resistance is breaking out on their farms.

"But stopping the treatment of an animal halfway through a prescription just because the visible problems have gone away is just as bad. In reality, all you are doing is vaccinating the bacteria against antibiotics," he said.

UCD's Professor of Food Safety and Zoonoses, Seamus Fanning, said that human patients were just as guilty as farmers of not following prescriptions.

"But that's not to say that there isn't an problem in farming. If we run out of antibiotics, we are buggered," he said bluntly.

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The UCD specialist added that there are no new antibiotics in the pipeline "because there is no money in it for big drug companies. All the research is being channelled into other human medicine."

He believes that the whole chain needs to rethink its approach to the issue, from the Government to vets to farmers.

"We have a Joint Ministerial Committee with top personnel from the Departments of Health and Agriculture set up to tackle this, but in the two years since its establishment we've seen very little come out of it."

Serious "There's no urgency, and I'm surprised that other bodies like Animal Health Ireland (AHI) haven't gone after this more," he said.

In response, AHI chairman Mike Magan admitted that the organisation charged with tackling the most urgent health issues facing the livestock industry "may not have been doing as much as we should".

"We can stand accused of not doing enough on this because this really isn't an issue that we can ignore any longer," said the Longford dairy farmer.

However, Mr Magan claimed that AHI had been "indirectly" trying to deal with the problem through programmes that were targetting high healthcare standards in stock.

"Our calf-care events are a good example of this. Healthier animals is a key way to reduce the useage," he said.

But the farm leader acknowledged that there was big awareness campaign still required.

"People still haven't really taken into account the impact of incorrect use of antibiotics.

"In the past, the focus for a lot of farmers may have been simply not to slip up and let, say, milk with antibiotics into the tank. But we've got to start thinking beyond that to the societal responsibility that goes with this issue.

"The ultimate consequence is that one of our own loved ones could be in hospital, where they may not respond to antibiotics due to resistance," he said.

One of the difficulties facing policy makers in tackling the issue of antibiotic use in the sector is the lack of data on the amount or types of drugs being used.

"Both drug companies and vets have been reluctant to volunteer useful data on this subject due to commercial sensitivities surrounding the issue," commented Prof Fanning.

"Really, the link between vets and big drug companies needs to be broken if real progress is to be made on this.

"The case in China where a antibiotic-resistant strain of E. coli was found in both humans and pigs was one of the clearest warning signals we've had that this issue is deadly serious."

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