Livestock farmers use antibiotics to help protect their animals from illness and disease in the herd. They are also often abused to promote growth, making the animals bigger and therefore worth more. The practice of giving livestock these medicines is a well-known and widespread one, but what does it mean for people consuming meat that has previously been treated with antibiotics?
What Do We Know?
Doctors should be well informed about the dangers of over prescribing antibiotics and that many so-called superbugs are increasingly becoming immune to antibiotic treatment. While the risks of humans using antibiotics too frequently are understood and easily explained to patients, the link between livestock antibiotic use and humans is something which is only recently garnering media attention.
A report commissioned by the Prime Minister in 2015 and carried out by an independent body looked at the use of antibiotics in the environment and agriculture. The report aimed to identify measures which could reduce the risks associated with the agricultural use of antimicrobials, the term which encapsulates antibiotics, antifungals, and antiparasitic medication, and also included a literature review of peer-reviewed medical journals.
The report summarised that 72% of the journals reviewed identified a link between antibiotic consumption in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans. The report also highlighted that the use of antimicrobials in livestock internationally is nearly at the same level as in humans and in some cases, it is higher. For example, in America 70% of antibiotics which are important for humans are also used on animals bred for consumption.
One of the big issues that the report highlighted is that many “last resort” antibiotics for humans are regularly being used on livestock. This could cause resistance in humans to these drugs and as there are no replacements currently in production, this could cause a real problem for the medical profession already faced with an increase in antimicrobial resistant illnesses.
What Can Be Done?
There is little that doctors can do to directly affect the use of antimicrobial drugs in livestock. However, ensuring that all medical professionals and patients are well informed of the risks outlined in the latest reports, as well as ensuring that antibiotics are not unnecessarily prescribed or taken will help to reduce the effect of resistance.
Rural GPs should also be aware that the report mentioned also outlined a higher risk to farmers of contracting antibiotic resistant illnesses. If the animals they are managing are being given antimicrobials, they may transfer drug-resistant strains of certain bugs which could be easily passed on to the farmers and their families. Drug resistant strains and live antimicrobials are also excreted from livestock and passed into the environment. Patients living in such environments may also have an increased risk of contracting these antibiotic resistant strains.
The latest reports recommend the introduction of a global target to reduce the use of antimicrobials in livestock, especially their use in healthy animals to promote growth, and even tighter restrictions on the use of antibiotics which are important for humans. Until these recommendations are taken on board by the UK government, however, this is a problem which is likely to affect GPs more and more frequently.