Doctors call for ban of antibiotic use in farm animals as drug-resistant human infections hit ‘dangerous level’
Tom Blackwell | 13/03/20 | Last Updated: 13/03/19 9:37 PM ET
The common practice of using antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals must be banned immediately as part of a campaign to combat drug-resistant infections in humans, one of the country’s largest doctor groups urges in a new report.
The problem of bacteria impervious to antibiotics has moved beyond the oft-reported super bugs like MRSA (methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus) and C. difficile, and affects a “multitude” of common infections from strep throat to salmonella, the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) warns.
People are already suffering more serious illness and spending longer in hospital because of the resistance, something that will become routine without prompt action, it adds.
“The impact on patients has reached a dangerous level,” says the report.
“Patients are now dying from infections that physicians have been successfully treating for decades.”
The report adds to growing international alarm about antibiotic resistance.
This month, Sally Davies, Britain’s chief medical officer, suggested the threat was as great as that posed by terrorism — a “ticking time bomb.” In South Africa, scientists recently published a study that documented a lethal new strain of tuberculosis resistant to all antibiotics.
The OMA report, the most dramatic call to action yet in this country, detailed common scenarios Canadian doctors are seeing now.
They include: people with resistant urinary-tract infections who end up on intravenous treatment; a pneumonia patient found unconscious in his home after antibiotics failed to work; and children whose strep throat returns repeatedly, often leading to scarlet fever.
Health Canada and U.S. studies have shown people with the super-bug Vancomycin-resistant enterococcus are more likely to be hospitalized and have a higher death rate than others once in hospital.
The report brings welcome attention to a dire problem, said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta. The huge, largely unknown quantities of antibiotics used on farms and over-prescribing to humans are crucial issues.
“We are definitely pouring fuel on the fire by this culture of believing anti-microbials are [always] safe,” she said.
‘Patients are now dying from infections that physicians have been successfully treating for decades’
The federal government and other authorities have been addressing the problem, but much more needs to be done, the OMA’s policy paper said.
As well as banning prophylactic use of the drugs in agriculture, it suggests: closing the loophole that lets farmers directly import antibiotics for their own use; monitoring how much of the drugs are used in farming; better tracking the extent of drug resistance overall; and promoting more careful prescribing by doctors.
Resistance occurs when bacteria genetics change in response to a drug, especially in non-lethal concentrations where the antibiotic is “tickling the bacteria, rather than killing it,” said Dr. Saxinger.
The problem has reached crisis proportions because of unnecessary and inappropriate use of the drugs. That can include futile prescribing of the medicine for colds and other viral infections, and patients failing to take all the medication.
The OMA report also cites the use by farmers to prevent infections and promote growth in healthy animals. Some bacteria – like E. coli and salmonella – can move from animals to humans, and resistant bugs can be passed along through meat and other foods.
The European Union has already banned prophylactic use of antibiotics in agriculture, while the U.S. government has curbed some of it.
The umbrella group for many of the country’s poultry producers said its members are concerned about the issue and working on it with government, but it is not clear farm use of the drugs is a problem.
In fact, most of the antibiotics used prophylactically by chicken growers are not prescribed to humans, said Mike Dungate of the Chicken Farmers of Canada. If farmers stopped using them, the birds would be more likely to get sick, then have to receive higher-level drugs that are, in fact, given to people.
“You’re possibly creating more of a risk of resistance to those antibiotics that are of [human] importance,” he said.
The OMA report acknowledged a ban could have a short-term negative effect on farmers, but said European producers faced quickly recovered by changing other practices to keep animals healthy.