Sunday, 27 February 2011

Agricultural use of antibiotics and the problem of resistance.

An extract from Maryn McKenna’s interview with Time Magazine this week covers an unpalatable subject for intensive livestock farming and the government veterinarians that control such activities in Britain.

The case is strongly and clearly presented.

Veterinarians, not least in Britain, will be called to account for recklessly spreading and covering-up the animal epidemics that are costing many human lives.

Nobody is allowed to make money from causing and covering up human misery.

Veterinarians individually, and collectively, will be forced to justify their selfish actions over the past few years.

Money made from wildly prescribing vast quantities of antibiotics to livestock will be blocked and claims for damages to humans will take more.

Veterinarians, those continued to be allowed to practice, will have their rights to prescribe antibiotics curtailed by international agreement and the EU is planning to stop those vets, including the British, from profiting from any allowable prescription by the EU.

The full transcript of the interview may be read here

How does agricultural use of antibiotics affect the problem of resistance?

While people talk about agriculture and sustainability and local food, they often don't realize that it's antibiotics that created confinement agriculture [in which farm animals are raised in close quarters]. Without antibiotic use, confinement agriculture would go away overnight because you couldn't keep the animals alive. [That is, disease would rapidly spread and kill them.] It's the player behind the curtain.

Of all the antibiotics sold every year, 80% go to agricultural use. That's 29 million pounds of antibiotics a year. The science is not challenged anymore: the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is the driver of an international epidemic of drug resistance.

When you use antibiotics [this way], they don't stay on the farm. They leave the farm in the systems of animals and leave the animals in manure. [Modern agriculture] generates a lot of manure. Those big lagoons are enormous petri dishes for the breeding of resistant organisms.

[And the bacteria] leave in groundwater, in the dust in the wind, on the feet of insects and in farm workers themselves. It's an occupational issue because farm workers come down with resistant infections. If we seriously want to dial back the international epidemic of resistance, we really have to look at how antibiotics are used in agriculture.

Is there any effort underway to change the system? It seems obvious that it could endanger human health.

At the very least, we ought to be setting up better surveillance. The reason that we don't get movement is because this is now a fight happening in the economic and political spheres. There is very significant opposition to touching agricultural antibiotic use both from very big producers and frankly from the pharmaceutical industry because the veterinary market is enormous.

A piece of legislation has been introduced for the last several Congresses. It will soon be introduced in the new Congress. It's called PAMTA, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. Rep. Louise Slaughter is the author. She is Congress's only microbiologist. It calls to remove or reduce agricultural use of seven classes of antibiotics. If we use those drugs in agriculture and resistance develops there, because it moves with incredible speed, that means we are making them ineffective for humans and we don't have a lot of drugs left.

Once a really complex system gets going, it's really hard to change. Agriculture is a big complex system with a lot of money involved…