It’s no secret that our reliance on antibiotics to fix just about any ailment is turning against us, and doctors warn that the animals we eat could be part of the problem. In B.C., government and farmers must take a hard look at practices that could be making people sicker.
A report from the Ontario Medical Association last month called for action to reduce the use of antibiotics and other “antimicrobial” drugs in agriculture as part of the continuing fight against drug-resistant infections in people. It includes a recommendation that governments ban the use of antibiotics by farmers to prevent disease in healthy animals and to promote growth.
The power of antibiotics to cure disease is undeniable. Doctors came to rely on them and patients came to demand them. Doctors were slow to see the hazards of over-reliance, and patients were slower to stop demanding the magic pills for every cough.
Now we are reaping the harvest in bugs that are impervious to the drugs we throw at them. Drug-resistant bugs like MRSA and C. difficile are well-known, but the medical association says that even common diseases like strep throat and salmonella are developing resistance.
“Patients are now dying from infections that physicians have been successfully treating for decades,” the report says.
As doctors try to reduce the use of antibiotics in people, they are worried about their use in agriculture. Farmers give animals antibiotics to keep them from getting sick, although groups like the Chicken Farmers of Canada deny they are given to promote growth.
Antibiotics are supposed to be given when a person or an animal is sick, not before they become ill. Use them on healthy animals and you’re giving the bugs more chance to develop resistance; those resistant bugs can move to humans. In 2009, a Dutch study found that one sample in three of human E. coli contained the same gene found in retail chicken.
The Canadian Medical Association’s position is the same as that of the World Health Organization: Antibiotics for agricultural use should be available only with a veterinarian’s prescription. B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture says it “supports the prudent and responsible use of antibiotics by veterinarians in animals.”
Evidence suggests that alternatives to antibiotics can work for farmers. Sweden led the way in cutting their use. Between 1986 and 2009, Sweden reduced its use of anti-biotics in agriculture from 45 tonnes a year to 15 tonnes. Denmark increased its production of pigs by 47 per cent between 1992 and 2008, while cutting antibiotic use by 51 per cent.
Making it work requires changes in practices, including modifying diets and giving animals more space. The B.C. government’s guide for small-flock poultry producers says: “Antibiotics should never be your ‘first line of defence.’ Good husbandry, good biosecurity, rapid and accurate disease diagnosis and a solid disease-prevention program is more effective in controlling disease than using antibiotics.”
The chicken farmers say the European experience isn’t what it appears. The antibiotics given in low doses to healthy animals differ significantly from those given to people, they say. While Europe has cut the use of those, it has increased the use of drugs to cure illnesses that do occur — medicines that are closer to the ones used on people.
The farmers say they are putting money into research on alternatives, and the province’s poultry, dairy, swine and beef industries are adopting biosecurity programs to reduce the risk of disease, which should cut the need for antimicrobials.
If we do not control our overuse of antimicrobials, the results will be devastating. Doctors and patients are beginning to change their ways — farmers must do the same.
© Copyright 2013