It’s a classic Doomsday scenario; drugs that have saved the lives of millions of both people and animals lose their power against new generations of superbugs – with no miracle replacements on the horizon. But this is not science fiction. It’s beginning to happen right now, a ticking time bomb created by growing resistance to antibiotics.
Basically, they have become too much of a good thing, with claims that, over the years, doctors and vets have dispensed them like sweets. And the more they are used, the easier it is for certain strains of bacteria to build up resistance. The threat is now so serious that David Cameron has ordered an expert review.
Andrew Miller, chair of the Commons Science and Technology Committee, is urging government to take “urgent action to prevent antibiotics from being given to people and animals who do not need them”. His committee is concerned by reports that antibiotic use in pigs and poultry in the UK is three times higher than in Nordic countries.
Zac Goldsmith, conservationist and MP, says: “In fairness, GPs and hospitals are making an effort to cut back on unnecessary antibiotics use.” But, writing in The Ecologist, he adds: “Virtually nothing is being done to limit misuse of antibiotics where it is most prevalent – in agriculture. A staggering half of all antibiotics are splurged on intensive farms where animals are kept in conditions where they would die without them.”
In sickness, not in health
Reflecting the growing concern, Goldsmith is calling for a ban on the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics on farms. The fear is, of course, that superbug versions of common bacteria will pass unchecked from food animals to us, causing poisoning and even death.
It’s already happening with E-coli and there are worries in government circles that too little is known about which antibiotics are given to which animals on British farms. In fact, farmers are required by law to keep a medicine book and record the drugs they use and why – but it would appear more needs to be done to feed back that information to a central data bank.
“It’s just not true that we are pumping animals with drugs willy-nilly,” I was told by Catherine McLoughlin, animal health policy adviser at the National Union of Farmers. “We have a mantra – to use medicines as little as possible and as much as necessary. When the poultry industry stopped using some antibiotics last year, the death rate among chicks went up by 2%. Farmers then raised their bio-security to levels they said were better than hospitals and the mortality rate is now down by 1%.”
In the countryside, good husbandry and hygiene go a long way towards limiting the need for expensive antibiotics, and for the past 13 years the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) has been keeping a watchful eye on what is being administered.
Far from clear is the extent to which their use on farms is leading to resistance among consumers – maybe the prime minister’s review will provide some answers. With drug companies lacking the financial incentive to develop new antibiotics – no new classes have come on the market since 1987 – the problem can only get worse in the war against microbes. The best advice must be: only prescribe the current ones to humans or animals who really are sick.