AMR debate: Antibiotic usage falling faster in agriculture than human medicine

Use of antibiotics is falling more quickly in agriculture than in human medicine, according to Junior Health Minister Nicola Blackwood.

MPs debated progress on the wide-ranging recommendations of the O’Neill report on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in the House of Commons this week.

Starting the debate, Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) said the number of infections complicated by AMR are expected to ‘increase markedly over the next 20 years’.

“If a widespread outbreak were to occur, we could expect around 200,000 people to be affected by a bacterial blood infection that could not be treated effectively with existing drug,” he said.

Much of the debate focused on human medicine, including addressing inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics, reducing avoidable infections and the barriers to developing new drugs and alternative to antibiotics. There was also an emphasis on the need to adopt a co-ordinated global approach to the problem.

A number of MPs focused on agriculture, however. Conservative MP Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) said: “It is vital we heed the O’Neill review’s recommendation that antimicrobial use in farming must reduce if we are to address the frightening consequences that he is outlining. In particular, we need to move away from intensive farming, which is reliant on the prophylactic use of antimicrobials.”

Former Shadow Defra Secretary Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) said: “We know that, just as there is a clear correlation between rising levels of human use of antibiotics and growing antibiotic resistance among humans, higher use in farm animals undermines antibiotics’ effectiveness in human medicine.”

She praised the move by Defra to set a target of reducing antibiotic use in livestock by 20% reduction by 2018 but said more action was needed.​

Welcoming progress towards ‘responsible use of antibiotics’ in the poultry sector, she said the pig sector had ‘not moved as fast’, with routine mass medication of groups of animals, either on a purely preventive basis or when a few animals within the group are sick, ‘still far too frequent’.

She called on the UK Government to ban preventative treatments and to set specific targets for ‘critically important antibiotics’, such as colistin, because of their importance to human health.

“We also need more ambitious sector-specific targets,” she said, claiming that antibiotic use remains ‘extremely high’ in the pig industry.

Same vigour

Conservative MP Caroline Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham) said, as an MP for a rural constituency and the wife of a farmer, she believed AMR must be tackled ‘with the same vigour’ through our agricultural practices as with human medicine.

She highlighted the value of recording antibiotic usage and also called for restrictions on CIAs, but added: “We must support our farmers in methods to prevent disease by emphasising improvement in overall biosecurity and herd health, including through vaccination.”

Closing the debate, Ms Blackwood said AMR had the potential, globally, to lead to 10 million deaths by 2050, with a loss to global productivity of £100 trillion.”

But she said the ‘ramifications of AMR are now widely acknowledged’ with UK ‘driving change at home and abroad’ with its AMR strategy and our response to the O’Neill review.

Highlighting progress in human medicine, she said data from November 2016 showed that total consumption of antibiotics by humans in England fell by 4.3% between 2014 and 2015, the greatest change since the early 2000s.”

The Junior Health Minister stressed AMR was also an issue for ‘animal health, agriculture and the environment, with a significant social and economic impact’. She  acknowledged calls by MPs highlighting the need for the Department of Health to work closely with the Veterinary Medicines Directorate to reduce the use of antimicrobials in livestock and in fish farmed for food.

Ms Blackwood added: “Between 2014 and 2015, we saw a drop of 10% in sales of antibiotic for food-producing animals, but we know that we need to go further. So we are now in the process of setting sector-specific targets to ensure that we achieve our ambition of 50 milligrams per kilogram weight of animal by 2018.”

She concluded: “AMR is truly a global security challenge, of a scale that requires long-term political leadership to drive through the international change, the up-front investment to break the cycle of market failure in drugs development and the urgent action needed to improve diagnostics and cut inappropriate prescribing, and to ensure that patients complete their courses of medicines in an appropriate way.”

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Editor of LBM titles Pig World and Farm Business and group editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer. National Pig Association's webmaster. Previously political editor at Farmers Guardian for many years and also worked Farmers Weekly. Occasional farming media pundit. Brought up on a Leicestershire farm, now work from a shed in the garden in Oxfordshire. Big fan of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers. Occasional cricketer.