Most countries are still using vital antibiotics which should only be used to treat humans to make animals grow faster, fuelling antibiotic resistance, a United Nations report has found.
Antibiotics are widely used in agriculture around the world to prevent or treat disease and make animals grow faster. The latter practice, which is banned in the EU and US, can create bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, known as superbugs. These can spread via contact with animals, farmers, in the environment and in food and infect humans.
Superbugs are estimated to kill 700,000 people worldwide and antibiotic resistance has been called one of the greatest threats to public health.
Of particular concern is the use of antibiotics that are critical for treating humans as growth promoters for animals. The new report, jointly produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) and World Organisation for Animal Health (OiE), says only 42% of countries have limited their use for growth promotion. The majority of these are in Europe, while only a fraction of countries in Africa and the Americas have taken these steps.
“Progress is a bit too slow. It needs to go faster,” said Henk Jan Ormel, a senior policy advisor to the FAO’s Chief Veterinary Officer, referring to the number of countries that are yet to introduce regulations to limit antibiotic use in agriculture.
He pointed to “chronic underinvestment in the animal, plant, food and agriculture sectors” that has led to a lack of alternatives to using antibiotics for farmers, such as access to better feed and better animal husbandry. Speaking at a conference on the report, he urged every country to phase out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in animal production.
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Earlier this year, an investigation by the Bureau revealed how one of India’s biggest poultry companies was dosing its chickens with one of the highest priority antibiotics. The antibiotic, colistin, is called a ‘last resort’ drug by experts as it used to treat some of the most resistant infections in humans. Yet it is also given to the chickens to make them grow faster.
The UN report also warned of antibiotics leaking from pharmaceutical factories. Only 10 countries have regulations in place to limit antibiotics escaping in waste from the factories that produce them. “This level of regulation is insufficient to protect the environment from the hazards of antimicrobial production,” the report said.
Only eight out of 18 major pharmaceutical companies set limits for how much antibiotic residue could be released in wastewater, a previous report from the independent not-for-profit body, the Access to Medicine Foundation found in January 2018.
Last year the Bureau reported on a study which revealed "excessively high" levels of antimicrobial drugs - as well as superbugs - in waste water from a major drug production hub in the Indian city of Hyderabad. The quantities found were strong enough to treat patients, scientists said.
While the majority of low income countries have taken some steps to raise awareness of the growing threat of superbugs from overuse of antibiotics in human medicine, information about other sources of resistant bacteria remains limited. Almost a third of low income countries had not run campaigns to raise awareness of superbugs developing from agriculture, food production and the environment, compared to 4% of high income countries, the UN report found.