For just the fourth time in its 72-year history, the United Nations General Assembly has focused on a health issue: the rise of “superbugs” and antibiotic-resistant infections. These pose a “fundamental threat” to society, said then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and are inspiring a fresh sense of urgency to find solutions.
The livestock sector has played an important role in creating this emerging health threat. It can also help stop it.
Superbugs are bacteria, fungi, and other microbes that are resistant to multiple antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents. Superbugs cause an estimated 700,000 deaths annually, and that number could top 10 million by 2050. Unless we take effective action, we could run out of effective ways to treat some of the world’s most serious diseases.
We have recently seen worrying evidence in China and in the US of E. coli, a common bacterium, that is resistant to the last line of antibiotic defense, a 1950s drug called colistin. Bacteria with the resistant gene have been found in livestock, in meat, and in people around the world. Scientists warn that this colistin-resistant gene could spread to other disease-causing bacteria, which would then put treatments for those diseases in jeopardy.
While we must redouble our efforts to find new ways to treat debilitating infectious diseases, it is equally important and urgent that we better manage the use of existing antimicrobials to prevent the development of further resistance to them. A recent report by the World Bank, which I helped write, points out that new antimicrobial drugs will quickly become ineffective if their use isn’t better regulated and managed.
Two-thirds of human infectious diseases originate in animals. And drug resistance that starts in animals may follow into people. If we’re going to effectively contain superbugs and antimicrobial resistance, we must fully address the issue in animals.
Farmers use antibiotics to help chickens, pigs, cattle, and farmed fish and seafood grow faster and to prevent infection and death. Such mass use of antimicrobials in generally healthy animals can lead to the development of superbugs in livestock. Cutting out the overuse of these medications, and applying them only when necessary, can have a real impact on the growing threat of drug resistance. In the US, for example, 70 percent of antimicrobials go into animal agriculture.
Globally, consumption of antimicrobials by livestock is set to increase by two-thirds between now and 2030. We must take action immediately to put in place systems to properly control the use of such valuable and increasingly scarce drugs.
First we need to know how and where these drugs are being used. As of 2014, only 42 countries had a system to collect data on the use of antimicrobial treatments in animal husbandry. A newly developed global database offers an invaluable tool for mapping antimicrobial use in livestock.
We also need to give farmers the support they need to ensure they have the right access to the right drugs when appropriate.
Since 2006, the European Union has banned farmers from using antimicrobials simply to promote growth, calling on them to use these drugs for their original purpose — treating disease. In 2012, the French government launched its EcoAntibio initiative to cut the use of antibiotics by one-quarter by 2017. In the United States, farmers can now no longer legally give healthy animals “medically important” antimicrobials (essentially those needed to treat people) to speed their growth.
In countries in which it has been possible to reduce antimicrobial use in agriculture, a reduction in drug resistance in microorganisms isolated from animals has followed. In Europe, for example, reductions in the use of antimicrobials by the agriculture industry has lowered the level of antimicrobial resistance detected in animals. A recent survey of British dairy farmers suggested that they could cut their antibiotic use to treat some diseases by up to a third. Nine out of 10 farmers agreed that their industry must take a lead on antibiotic resistance, showing a willingness to reform drug use in animal husbandry practices.
Another solution is to use and develop vaccines and other alternatives to the use of antimicrobials. In Zambia, for example, a project to immunize cattle against East Coast fever not only reduced the need for anti-parasitic drugs but also led to a growth in the size of the herd from 900,000 to 1.4 million, achieving the dual goal of reducing mortality and giving farmers a buffer against losses.
It is important to keep in mind that the use of antimicrobials by the livestock industry still has many benefits when the drugs are used properly. For example, the International Livestock Research Institute has worked with farmers in West Africa to increase rational drug use as a means of reducing animal mortality and protecting farmers against losses to their livelihoods.
We have a long way to go and much to achieve when it comes to tackling drug resistance. Farming systems can be adapted to reduce the need for antibiotics and other antimicrobials. With hard work and persistence, growing animals for food can shift from being an important source of antimicrobial resistance to being an important part of the solution.
Caroline Plante is a livestock specialist at The World Bank.