January 2018
From the State Vet's Office

Who is the WHO to suggest animal agriculture eliminate antibiotics?

I get a handful of emails every day with a sampling of headlines from all over the country that have to do with animal agriculture. I figure that, as the State Veterinarian, I should be at least a little knowledgeable about issues concerning animal agriculture. I will have to admit that most days I do well just to look at the headlines and pick out those I need to read most. A while back, one of the headlines sort of caught my attention. I thought I had misread it, so I did a double take. The title of the article was, "WHO calls to eliminate antibiotic use."

When I looked further, I found the World Health Organization was encouraging the United States to eliminate the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. It further reported that many of the European countries had already banned the use of antibiotics in food animals.

The move away from antibiotics is one of the actions to reduce a growing concern of antibiotic resistance. After looking deeper at eliminating antibiotic use in food animals, I figure it is a good time to use this forum to get on my soapbox.

First, I want to ask a few questions that need to be addressed. Is antibiotic resistance a serious concern? Does antibiotic use in food animals contribute significantly to antibiotic resistance? Would following the example of Europe by eliminating antibiotic use in food animals significantly reduce the threat of antibiotic resistance? And, finally, are antibiotics inherently bad?

I would say that, at the very least, antibiotic resistance is a serious concern. Then it becomes like the old saying about the economy. "If it affects your neighbor, it is a recession. If it affects you, it is a depression." So, if antibiotics affect someone else, it is a serious problem. If they affect you, your friends or family, it is a life-threatening disaster. Either way, it is an issue that will not go away. We in animal agriculture have a role in minimizing the threat.

For years, we have heard of the "super bugs," simply bacteria resistant to our arsenal of antibiotics. When I looked at the WHO’s Top 10 emerging diseases, I find most have some animal component. However, they are all viral diseases. That means the antibiotic question doesn’t even come into play because antibiotics have no effect on viruses.

Then I looked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find out what they considered the most-threatening antibiotic-resistant microbes. Of their 18, only three or four were related to animals.

Let’s look a little closer at the bacteria the CDC lists as significant threats because of antibiotic resistance. The two most common are salmonella and campylobacter, both foodborne illnesses. Some of the other bacteria can affect animals. And certainly, there are a lot of salmonella infections that do not originate from food animals.

Anyway, our laboratories see several salmonella infections in animals, but most are not resistant to every antibiotic we use to test for effective treatment. There is certainly resistance to some antibiotics. That is the reason our laboratories perform those tests. That allows for more judicious use of antibiotics, by using the one most likely to work. Still, it would be the old ostrich with its head in the sand to think the use of antibiotics in food animals plays no role in the resistance issue.

Every time any antibiotic is used for anything on food animals, pets or humans, there is the potential for the bacteria to develop a resistance. As a survival mechanism, bacteria have a couple of ways that allow them to develop resistance to antibiotics they are exposed to. As the bacteria reproduce every 30 minutes under ideal conditions, they can develop the resistance gene and pass it on to their kids … grandkids … great-grandkids … on and on and on.

There are many reasons for antibiotic resistance. I think a huge contributor to the problem is us, you and me. Right now, I want all of you to put down this magazine and go to your medicine cabinet and see if you find some old bottle(s) of antibiotics such as amoxicillin, doxycycline, ciprofloxacin, Septra, Bactrim or Keflex/cephalexin. Actually, you can do it after you finish reading this.

My point is that we often get to feeling better and stop taking the antibiotics our doctor prescribed. By doing that, the bacteria that are down but not out could develop resistance.

Another factor is simply the widespread use of the standard antibiotics we have in the United States. I believe both physicians and veterinarians are becoming more aware of the great deal of responsibility of prescribing antibiotics.

Additionally, educating clients and patients on the importance of finishing prescriptions and not taking antibiotics if the disease is viral will contribute to reducing antibiotic resistance.

In 1950, life expectancy in the United States was 68 years. Today, our life expectancy is a little less than 80 years. There are several factors contributing to that increase, including clean water, vaccines, better medical care that includes the development of newer and better antibiotics, seatbelts, pasteurized milk and remote controls for TV … well, maybe not remote controls but they help improve those extra years, especially for those of us trying to watch more than one football game at a time.

Would eliminating the use of antibiotics in food animals be a positive move for the general health of the population, both here and around the world? I am not sure why we are even addressing that question. The WHO indicated that we are falling behind Europe in that area. Somehow, when I think of feeding the world, Europe doesn’t come to mind. If we eliminate the use of antibiotics in food animals, I do not believe we can feed the world. If a person wants to buy organically raised chicken, turkeys, beef or pork, that is his or her business. However, we cannot feed the world without using every tool in the tool box.

As I have often said in this column, the prediction is for the world population to reach 9 billion by 2050. And we are not turning more acreage into farm land. It is quite the opposite. A New York Times article in 2002 stated that the United States was losing 2 acres of farm land per minute. That scares me much more than the use of antibiotics in farm animals. As a veterinarian, I feel it is cruel to not treat sick animals.


Who is the WHO to tell us not to use antibiotics in food animals?

Stay tuned for more on this issue!


Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama. You can contact him at 334-240-7253.