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Antibiotics: too soon for celebrations?

News Icon 18/11/2016

Latest official figures from Defra on UK veterinary antibiotic resistance and antibiotic sales have been released this week. There has been much coverage of the report celebrating a 9% reduction of farm antibiotics sales in 2015, but it is important we don’t jump the gun with our praise.

Of course, a 9% reduction in sales is very welcome, but while the new data shows we are moving in the right direction, the overall pace of progress is painfully slow. Even when taking these reductions into account, the total UK farm antibiotic use has fallen by just 4% since 2006, when growth promoters were banned. In a decade, this simply isn’t good enough.

We have seen reductions in antibiotic use before. Between 1993 and 2015, there have been significant falls on several occasions, but subsequently sales have then increased. I sincerely hope that with recent focus on farm antibiotic use, this may be the beginning of a genuine trend towards a more permanent reduction, but we are certainly not there yet.

As you and I know, the reason such high quantities of antibiotics are used in the UK, is to prop up cruel factory farming systems. In these overcrowded, bleak conditions animals are regularly given antibiotics in their feed or water just to stay healthy.

The report highlights a small fall in sales of some of the antibiotics classed as ‘critically important’ for humans – such as modern cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones. It is of course encouraging to see this fall. However, it is still extremely concerning that UK farm use of these antibiotics remains close to record levels, and that the industry is still using these ‘critically important’ drugs at all.

While the British Poultry Council reported a 500 kg reduction in their use of fluoroquinolones, the overall use of fluoroquinolones only fell by 61 kg. This worryingly suggests that the use of this ‘critically important’ antibiotic must have significantly increased in other species.

Despite seeing a reduction in sales, antibiotic use in British pigs alone remains about 5 times higher per animal than in Demark and the Netherlands - evidence that there is still much more work to be done.

Urgent action is essential, given that farm antibiotic use accounts for a huge 40% of overall antibiotic use in the UK. The report must also be considered within the context of the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics’ latest research, which found worryingly high levels of antibiotic resistant superbugs in meat sold in seven UK supermarkets. 

Experts predict that by 2050, medical issues relating to antibiotic resistance will kill 10 million people per year. We urgently need to see some dramatic and consistent reductions in farm antibiotic use, if we are to be reassured that a terrifying post-antibiotic future is not in fact becoming reality.

It is crucial we do not let these encouraging signs detract from the enormity of the antibiotic resistance crisis.


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