Stop using antibiotics in healthy animals, WHO urges farmers

Antibiotic prescriptions and usage need to electronically tracked say veterinary experts
Antibiotic prescriptions and usage need to electronically tracked say veterinary experts

Kate Kelland

The World Health Organization urged farmers on Tuesday to stop using antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals because the practice fuels dangerous drug-resistant superbug infections in people.

Describing a lack of effective antibiotics for humans as “a security threat” on a par with “a sudden and deadly disease outbreak”, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “strong and sustained action across all sectors” was vital to turn back the tide of resistance and “keep the world safe”.

The WHO “strongly recommends an overall reduction in the use of all classes of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals, including complete restriction of these antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention without diagnosis,” the United Nations agency said in a statement.

Any use of antibiotics promotes the development and spread of so-called superbugs -- multi-drug-resistant infections that can evade the medicines designed to kill them.

According to the WHO’s statement, in some countries, around 80 percent of total consumption of medically important antibiotics is in the animal sector. They are largely used in healthy animals to stop them getting sick and to speed up their growth.

The WHO said such use should be halted completely. In sick animals, it added, wherever possible, tests should first be conducted to determine the most effective and prudent antibiotic to treat their specific infection.

WORRY: Antibiotic resistence linked to mis-use at farm level is becoming a major concern in our hospitals
WORRY: Antibiotic resistence linked to mis-use at farm level is becoming a major concern in our hospitals

Some countries have already taken action to reduce the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. The European Union has since 2006 banned the use of the drugs for growth promotion.

Consumers are also driving a demand for meat raised without routine use of antibiotics, with some major food chains adopting ‘antibiotic-free’ policies for meat supplies.

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The WHO said alternatives to using antibiotics for disease prevention in animals include improving hygiene and farming practices, and making better use of vaccines.

Commenting on the WHO recommendations, IFA Animal Health Chairman Bert Stewart said it is critically important that decisions are strongly supported by factual evidence.

He said addressing AMR and prolonging the effectiveness of antibiotics for humans and animals is a key objective for all. 

“It requires a multi-faceted, fact-based, long-term approach which avoids populist conclusions based on low quality or very low-quality evidence of improving the AMR situation that do not address the real causes of antimicrobial resistance. If this is allowed happen, we will all be the losers.”

The IFA Chairman said the use of antibiotics on farms is already heavily regulated. Today’s recommendations are in general already being implemented by Irish farmers, with all products available only under veterinary prescription to farmers. 

“Farmers will play their part and have in the past number of years made significant investment in raising the health status of their animals through the implementation of disease eradication programmes which reduce the requirement for antibiotics.”

Bert Stewart said farmers must be supported in this approach, with recognition of the costs involved and assurances that trade deals do not expose Irish and European farmers to unfair competition from areas where less exacting standards are applied.

He said retailers have a huge role to play in ensuring their tactics are not forcing producers to produce food at prices below the cost of production.  

Bert Stewart said we need to consider very carefully the consequences of reducing necessary antibiotic use in animals, which can have serious animal welfare and health implications and increase production costs for very little if any contribution towards reducing antimicrobial resistance.

Bert Stewart said farmers will play their part, but if we are really serious about addressing the AMR issue, the major contributors to antimicrobial resistance are not to be found inside the farm gate.


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