Scientists speaking at a conference yesterday revealed shocking new levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in intensively reared farm animals that have the potential to spread to humans.
In his keynote speech Professor Gary French from Guy's & St Thomas' Hospital & King's College, London told delegates that "We are faced with the potential loss of antimicrobial therapy. Effective national and international programmes of control to combat these problems are urgently needed."
Presentations from British government scientists admitted that a new, almost untreatable, type of antibiotic resistance in E. coli, known as extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) resistance, has spread from the handful of farms on which it had been identified, to more than one in three of all dairy farms in England and Wales. One study linked the rise of ESBL E-coli on farms to the increasing farm use of modern antibiotics classified as critically important in human medicine. The same study presented evidence that the unregulated sale of animals from first infected farms had increased the problem.
In a further development, Professor John Threlfall from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) presented evidence on a highly drug-resistant strain of salmonella associated with pigs and pigmeat, which caused human outbreaks in ten European countries, and posed the question, 'Is this the next multi-drug resistant epidemic European Salmonella?' Alarmingly, this same strain has now also been found in British pigs with additional ESBL resistance.
A British government scientist admitted that 'Food remains under-explored as a potential source of ESBL-producing E. coli.', while a Dutch scientist said that their investigations already enabled them to conclude that, 'in the Netherlands poultry had contributed to the distribution of ESBL-carrying plasmids towards humans.'
Philip Lymbery, from Compassion in World Farming, said: "The intensification of agriculture, with pigs and poultry kept in cramped, unhygienic conditions, and dairy cattle pushed harder and harder to produce more milk, has led farmers to rely on hugely important antibiotics to treat the diseases this is causing. We are now getting the evidence that this has real implications for human health too. It is high time that Defra stopped downplaying the evidence and realised that the only way to address this problem is to start keeping farm animals in more natural and less intensive ways."
Richard Young from the Soil Association said: "There has been little public scrutiny of farm antibiotic use for over a decade, yet during that time we have seen farmers dramatically increase their use of antibiotics classified by the World Health Organisation as 'critically important in human medicine' and we have also seen the development of several serious antibiotic-resistant bugs in farm animals which are passing to humans on food and in other ways. It is high time that the government took this problem seriously."
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