The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged farmers to stop using antibiotics in healthy animals (including fish) to help ensure the drugs remain effective in fighting life-threatening diseases in humans. Overuse and misuse of these drugs in animals and humans is contributing to the growing threat of superbugs, which become immune to existing drugs and allow minor injuries and common infections to become deadly.
“A lack of effective antibiotics is as serious a security threat as a sudden and deadly disease outbreak,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement launching the UN agency's new recommendations. “Strong, sustained action across all sectors is vital if we are to turn back the tide of antimicrobial resistance and keep the world safe,” he added.
Millions Could Die
Action is certainly needed. Researchers estimate that by 2050, some 50 million deaths globally will be attributable to antimicrobial resistance. A world without functioning antibiotics would be like “going back to the dark ages,” warned Marc Sprenger, who heads WHO's Antimicrobial Resistance Secretariat.
“People will just die because of (regular) infections,” he told reporters in a phone conference, warning that common procedures like hip replacements would also no longer be possible since the risk of infection would be too great.
A review of nearly 200 separate studies, commissioned by WHO and published in British medical journal The Lancet, indicated that cutting antibiotic use in food-producing animals could have a significant impact on the problem.
Restricting antibiotic use in livestock and on fish farms led to a clear reduction in antibiotic-resistant bacteria in those animals, the review showed.
Antibiotics have long been routinely used in healthy animals to promote growth and prevent diseases. In some countries, around 80% of the total consumption of medically important antibiotics is used in the animal sector, according to WHO numbers.
Some countries have already taken action to reduce the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. The European Union has since 2006 banned the use of the drugs for growth promotion. Consumers are also driving a demand for meat raised without routine use of antibiotics, with some major food chains adopting antibiotic-free policies for meat supplies.
The US Food And Drug Administration has said that medically important antibiotics should not be used for growth promotion in animals. In the United States, Tyson Foods Inc has stopped using antibiotics to produce its retail line of chicken. Perdue Farms, a competitor, said it eliminated the routine use of the drugs in chicken last year.
The UN health agency is now calling for a complete halt to the use of antibiotics for growth promotion, and also for disease prevention, except in cases where disease has been detected in other animals in the same flock, herd or fish population. WHO said alternatives to using antibiotics for disease prevention in animals include improving hygiene and farming practices, and making better use of vaccines.