Countries are being urged to impose an immediate ban on the use of “last resort” antibiotics as growth promoters in animals in a bid to combat superbugs.
A report from the World Organisation for Animal Health (known as OIE) has found that 45 countries out of 155 that provided data are still giving antibiotics to animals as a way of fattening them up, despite the fact the practice is banned in many parts of the world.
And a high number of countries are still using drugs classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as antibiotics of last resort – that is, treatments that should only be used when everything else has failed or in specific circumstances.
The practice of using antibiotics as growth promoters was outlawed by the European Union in 2006 and the United States Food and Drug Administration in 2017.
The misuse of antibiotics in animals – coupled with overuse in humans – is behind the spread of antibiotic resistance, which in 2015 is estimated to have killed 33,000 people in Europe.
The OIE report found that out of the 45 countries still using antibiotics as growth promoters 18 are in the Americas, 14 are in Asia and Oceania, 10 are in Africa, two are in Europe and one is in the Middle East. Some 27 of these countries have no policies on the use of antibiotics in animals – a situation the OIE said should be rectified.
Some 18 countries use bacitracin, which is on WHO’s “reserve” group of antibiotics, meaning that it is an antibiotic of last resort and of critical importance to human health. And 12 countries use colistin, also on WHO’s reserve list.
Some 17 countries use tylosin and 15 use virginiamycin – both of these are macrolides and are on WHO’s “watch” list. This group comprises antibiotics that are considered to have a high resistance potential and should only be used for certain conditions.
Earlier this month the Department of Health published a new strategy on antimicrobial resistance, pledging to cut the use of antibiotics by 15 per cent within six years.
At the launch of the strategy the chief medical officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, said: “The threat of antimicrobial resistance cannot be overstated – without intervention it is not an exaggeration to say that we could return to the dark ages of medicine.”
The OIE does not single out individual countries “to encourage participation” but a recent Telegraph investigation found that Zoetis, a US animal drugs manufacturer, was marketing antibiotics as growth promoters in India, despite the fact it stopped advertising these same products to farmers in the US two years ago. India is a signatory to the Chennai Declaration which aims to tackle antibiotic resistance.
The OIE report urged countries to phase out the use of antibiotics and put an immediate end to the use of critically important drugs.
Matt Stone, deputy director general of the OIE, said he was concerned that countries were still using antibiotics on WHO's reserve list.
“We have made a very explicit and clear recommendation that we would like to see an immediate end to the use of this class of antibiotics. This is as clear as we can about the sort of regulatory approaches we are asking for from countries. This is a unanimous view,” he said.
The OIE does not have enforcement powers so it can only issue guidance and recommendations to countries.
“It’s very difficult for any regulatory system to get a true handle on how much illegal behaviour is going on. It’s a big challenge. We encourage our members as they develop their regulatory systems to think clearly about this,” said Dr Stone.
But he added that education was as important as enforcement.
“Countries need to balance enforcement activities with training, capacity development and ensuring people understand the implications [of using antibiotics]” he said.
Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security