Tensions build in antibiotics row

06 January, 2012
Pressure to reduce the use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine 
is dividing opinion with animal welfare lobby groups on one side and farming bodies on the other,

In October, the European Parliament adopted a motion aiming to tackle antimicrobial resistance by reducing the use of antibiotics both in human and veterinary medicine. Two weeks later, the Save our Antibiotics Alliance, composed of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), the Soil Association and Sustain, sparked criticism with a report that called for a 50% cut in antibiotics in the farming sector by 2015.


Agriculture experts said this target was disproportionate considering that most antimicrobial resistance issues are known to come from human medicine. Joyce D’Silva, director of public affairs at CIWF, replied: “There is no doubt about the medical profession’s responsibility in the issue, but it is now taking measures to reduce antibiotic use, whereas the farming industry is behind. Sometimes it feels like farmers need to be led dragging and screaming to take action.”

Reduction Targets

That said, measures are already being taken to change the way antibiotics are used on farm animals. In December, the poultry industry pledged to stop using cephalosporins from 1 January 2012, and to stop the prophylactic use of quinolones for day-old chicks. These two types of antibiotics are the most likely to cause antimicrobial resistance, and D’Silva welcomed the move, adding that more needed to be done. 
“We welcome anything that reduces antibiotic use, and they are taking action on vital antibiotics so it’s great. They are also reviewing other types of antibiotics, but it could take five years before any other action is taken, so we would rather they set a target like the one in our report,” she told MTJ.


But for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), this type of set target is dangerous. Animal health and welfare advisor Catherine Mclaughlin agreed that some antibiotics should be carefully managed and only used as a last resort, but said generalised action is not a solution. “It’s the newer generations of cephalosporins and quinolones that are the most dangerous for human health, but former generations are fine. Besides, not all antibiotics that are used in farm animals are also used on humans, so it needs to be viewed on a case-to-case basis,” she said.


Moreover, what is applicable to the poultry industry is not necessarily adaptable to pig production. Bpex head of research and development Derek Armstrong said the use of cephalosporins and quinolones was already limited in the pig sector, therefore taking a similar measure to those announced by the British Poultry Council (BPC) would not make a substantial difference.


Current EU regulations state that piglets should be kept with their mothers for a period of up to four weeks, whereas natural weaning usually happens after three to four months. D’Silva suggested delaying weaning on farms to reduce stress and vulnerability to diseases for piglets. But Armstrong expressed reservations over the suggestion. “The disease risk is more related to the change of diets from liquid to solid than to stress, and this risk is generally well managed by farmers. As long as piglets get enough colostrum (a substance full with very high levels of antibodies produced in all mammals) in the first 24 hours of their lives, their immune system is fine,” he said.


In 2003, Defra commissioned a four-year research programme to determine the impact of early weaning on sows and piglets. It concluded that later weaning (at eight weeks) would increase costs of production without presenting real benefits in terms of sow and piglet performance and nutrient absorption, and advised against the adoption of this measure.


However, other solutions are available to reduce the need for antibiotics in the pig industry. Armstrong added: “Bpex is working on pig health improvement projects to reduce the risk of the main disease challenges, which is one way to reduce the use of antibiotics. Another way is to use effective vaccines strategically. There are also specific management systems, like disinfecting pens between two batches of piglets. All of this is already being done, but there is always room for improvement.

”
The challenge for pig producers is to find the right balance between antibiotic reduction and animal welfare. Mclaughlin explained that antibiotics are vital for animal health. “We need to ask ourselves what the alternative is,” she said. “In Sweden [where antibiotics sales have dropped 75% since the country banned growth promoters in 1986], farmers have pretty much accepted the fact that their culling rates are increasing. In the end, it’s a matter of choice.”


At Bpex, the choice has already been made. “We put pig welfare first and we will make our progress with that in mind. Our strategy is similar to what CIWF wants, which is to use antibiotics only when needed, but for welfare reasons they should stay available for animals,” said Armstrong.


One of the biggest concerns expressed by the Save our Antibiotics Alliance was the fact that antibiotics were still being used in a prophylactic way before the appearance of any symptoms, implying that farmers may be using them as growth promoters. “Whilst the use of nine antibiotics previously licensed for growth promotion under feed additives legislation is no longer legal in the EU, there is still significant prophylactic use under veterinary prescription in pigs and poultry at sub-therapeutic doses (which can often have growth promoting effects) in animals which are showing no signs of disease,” the Alliance said.


But Armstrong replied that Bpex was not aware of any antibiotics being used for growth purposes. “Antibiotics have to be prescribed by vets, who are bound by a code of professional conduct. If CIWF is aware of situations where vets do not respect that code, they should bring them to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons,” he said. 
However, he admitted that antibiotics were still used preventively in specific situations.

He explained: “Piglets are produced in large groups, and when there is evidence of a disease starting in a group, all piglets are treated as metaphylaxis [ie, to prevent an expected outbreak]. Moreover, there are probably farms where it is being used prophylactically because pigs tend to always get diseases at the same stage of production, but this is something that the industry would like to see disappear.”

Lack of understanding

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) recently released a poster outlining certain guidelines for antibiotic prescriptions on farms, and is a member of the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA), along with Bpex, Eblex and the NFU. But for the veterinary profession, suppressing all prophylactic use of antibiotic could have dire consequences. 


In reaction to the EU’s proposal to ban prophylactic treatment, BVA president Carl Padgett said: “While we understand the desire to put an end to blanket prophylactic treatment with antimicrobials, this measure shows a lack of understanding of how vets treat infection on the farm. Vets should be able to use their clinical and professional judgement; otherwise we risk a situation whereby they are unable to administer an antimicrobial to an injured animal to prevent infection, or to the pen-mates of sick animals on farm who are likely to also be infected.”


However, CIWF still believes closer monitoring is needed. D’Silva explained: “Many vets are very honourable, but some will prescribe antibiotics for their own financial interests. With closer monitoring, this type of misprescription would become obvious.” 


At the NFU, Mclaughlin agreed with this proposal, and hailed the progress that had already been made in the area. “Veterinary professionals are aware of their very responsible part in the issue, and veterinary bodies are already talking about how they can monitor things better. There have been lots of things going on with the BVA, and RUMA messages are targeting vet students as well, so in the last 18 months the level of awareness has gone up massively,” she said.


There is still room for a lot more progress when it comes to reducing the use of antibiotics in the farming industry, but despite apparent disagreements between lobby groups and farmers, a lot has already been achieved. 
“We generally have a very good system in the UK compared to other European countries, but of course you never want to be complacent,”  said Mclaughlin.





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