Farmers must reduce antibiotic use or gov’t will set own agenda

The warning by Herman Barkema, a leader in infectious disease in livestock, about antimicrobial-resistant bacteria is ominous: “If we do not get our act together they (regulatory bodies) will come with measures whether we like it or not.”

The World Health Organization developed a plan to tackle the issue in 2015 with the One Health program, which uses information from human health agencies and animal health and agri-food sectors to co-ordinate efforts to curtail the impact of antimicrobial resistance.

Canada updated regulations dealing with antimicrobial use in May.

It is an enormously complex issue. Any change in the use of antimicrobials must consider whether the use of other products might be increased — and the ramifications of that — whether animals would suffer as a result, and whether changes would have a tangible impact on reducing antimicrobial resistant bacteria.

Tracking all this requires a lot of resources and will need worldwide co-operation.

It’s estimated that 700,000 people died last year as a result of resistance to antimicrobial treatments and that by 2050, up to 10 million people could die annually.

Conditions such as pneumonia, gonorrhea, post-operative infections, HIV, tuberculosis and malaria are becoming more dangerous due to heavy use of antibiotics.

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Eighty percent of antimicrobials are administered to animals — whether prophylactically to ward off disease when symptoms appear, or to some extent, to promote growth. That shouldn’t surprise, given that it’s estimated there are 19 animals for every human in Canada, and greater animal weight must also be factored in.

Growth-promotant indications are to be removed from antibiotic labels this year.

Still, it’s thought that overuse in humans is the main contributor to the emergence of antimicrobial-resistant strains of bacteria.

But there is no denying that agricultural practices must evolve, and to a large extent, they are. Virtually every animal organization has guidelines for antimicrobial use.

For example, the Chicken Farmers of Canada eliminated Category 1 antimicrobials in 2014 (those that are vital to treatment of humans, with limited alternatives), and now plan to eliminate Category 2 antimicrobials (the preferred option for humans, but there are other options), by the end of 2018, and Category 3 antimicrobials (not applicable to humans, but there may be alternatives) by the end of 2020.

Intensive farming operations such as poultry and hog farms face challenges in eliminating antimicrobials, since disease can spread quickly through those farms.

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And while the beef research council says eliminating the use of antimicrobials in cattle “would have clear negative health consequences for cattle with no obvious benefit for human health,” it has nonetheless developed guidelines.

All livestock have strict rules for anti-microbial residues before products go to market.

The Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance, which monitors trends in antimicrobial use and resistance, says “the contamination of animals and animal products with antimicrobial resistant bacteria has been identified as a source for human infection with resistant organisms.”

It’s a definitive statement that means farmers will face an evolving regulatory climate.

The agri-food sector is linked to antimicrobial-resistant bacteria through a variety of pathways. It’s vital that all livestock operations understand and follow recommended procedures and that their industry remain engaged in the development of regulations.

Leaving an epidemic of antimicrobial resistant bacteria for the next generation would be a terrible legacy.

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Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod, D’Arce McMillan and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.