A researcher examines a strain of Staphylococcus epidermidis that is highly resistant to antibiotics (Image: William West / AFP via Getty Images)
While public awareness means we are all likely to better understand that antibiotics should be used sparingly, there are official warnings that antibiotic resistance has become one of the greatest threats to our health worldwide.
The World Health Organization (WHO) makes no secret of it: “Antibiotic resistance is rising to a dangerously high level in all parts of the world … it can kill again.”
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In this context, a future without effective antibiotics would mean that everyday medical interventions like hip replacements, cancer chemotherapy, organ transplants, and treating premature babies would be far less safe. It’s a terrifying thought.
Projections suggest that unless we radically change the use of antibiotics, antibiotic resistance will kill more people by mid-century than cancer does today.
A recent report from Antibiotic Research UK found a 17 percent decrease in antibiotic prescriptions in the first year of the pandemic in England, “an indication of the extent of overprescription in normal times”. While this could be due to many factors, including lower infection transmission during lockdown and fewer visits to the general practitioner, it is encouraging that there are clear ways to reduce antibiotic use in people.
However, reducing the overuse of antibiotics for humans is less than half the story, as most of these vital drugs are used in animal husbandry.
Around two thirds of all antibiotics worldwide are used in livestock and not in humans. Much of this use is routine and enables farm animals to be kept in cruel, cramped, and stressful conditions where disease can spread easily.
This is how you can tell when you are sick enough to be prescribed antibiotics
Leading authorities such as the European Medicines Agency and WHO say that the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture contributes to higher antibiotic resistance in some human infections.
In the UK, UK ranchers have made good progress in reducing their antibiotic use, which now accounts for around 26 percent of total UK antibiotic use. British pig and poultry farmers have reduced, or in some cases discontinued, routine use. This progress is welcome, but much more needs to be done.
Choice of consumers
As well as calling for action in agriculture and human medicine, I always want to convey a message to consumers on how food choices can make the world a better place.
However, a new report casts doubts on how confident we can be about buying foods that are made without the overuse of antibiotics in supermarkets.
A new report from the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics found that meat, dairy products and eggs produced under the abuse of antibiotics could still find their way onto UK supermarket shelves due to inadequate guidelines.
Despite some improvements, the report finds that most imports and branded products do not fall under the supermarkets’ own rules for responsible antibiotic use.
This means that there is no reliable way for shoppers to avoid buying foods made with irresponsible antibiotic use.
This is particularly worrying as the government is conducting trade talks with countries like the US and Australia where antibiotics are still used to promote growth, a practice that is banned in the UK. The ban on growth promoters does not apply to imported food, a loophole that neither the government nor most supermarkets have removed.
In my view, supermarkets have a responsibility to ensure that all of the meat, dairy products and eggs they sell are made without the abuse of antibiotics and come from farms where the animals are naturally kept healthy.
Action needs to be taken swiftly to remove the clutter of regulations that is leaving consumers unable to tell whether the food they are buying is responsibly grown or not. And it could get worse if trade deals don’t prevent the importation of products that are grown in ways that have long been banned in this country – such as antibiotics as growth promoters.
It is good to see that Dr. TV’s Chris Van Tulleken, Infectious Disease Doctor and Clinical Researcher at University College London Hospital, had a comment on the matter. “We need to get antibiotic abuse out of the food chain as it contributes to the global antibiotic resistance crisis. If we run out of reliable, effective antibiotics, we will see many more deaths from infections. This will even affect young people, including children, ”he said.
Dr. Tulleken supports a petition from the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics calling for supermarkets to apply their antibiotic responsible rules to all animal products sold in their stores.
Human and animal health are closely related
Ultimately, government and supermarket policies will only be truly effective if every animal in every supply chain is protected. It is long time for rhetoric. As with the threat of climate change, there is simply too much at stake, we need to act.
The transformation of our food systems is essential if we are not to lose the essentials that we currently take for granted, such as antibiotics.
It’s just another reminder that human well-being is closely related to the health and well-being of animals and the environment. If we kept livestock in decent conditions, it would drastically reduce the amount of routine antibiotics needed to ward off diseases associated with questionable husbandry practices.
Protecting people ultimately also means protecting animals.
Philip Lymbery is the Global CEO of Compassion in World Farming International and a United Nations Food Systems Champion. He’s on Twitter @philip_ciwf