Routine use of antibiotics in global agriculture a big problem

Coincidentally, I was having my essential morning coffee and listening to my favourite public broadcasting, information radio programming when I caught an item about how some people, children especially, get painful ear infections, while others don’t. The medical specialist being interviewed referred to the use of antibiotics to treat such infections. He mentioned bacterial infections that get into the tiny bones of the inner ear are “difficult to treat.”

I can relate to that, having had a bone infection in a finger a few years ago that was not stopped by antibiotics. I ended up having to make several trips to London, Ontario, the last for a surgical appointment to remove the infected bone. Otherwise the infection would have spread.

I say “coincidentally” because for a couple of days before I caught that radio item I had been immersing myself in an important news topic: the recent discovery of a new gene that has sent shock waves through the medical-scientific world community. The worry now is that because of its make-up and method of transference from one genetically different bacteria to another, the gene, called MCR-1, will eventually make all medicinal antibiotics ineffective.

How long that might take remains to be seen. At least one article I’ve read quotes an expert who says people shouldn’t be too worried about it for now. But most have expressed an urgent need to find out as much as possible about the incidence of MCR-1 world-wide, including Canada. Some have called for a complete ban on the growing use of antibiotics in agriculture, especially in China. In that country thousands of tonnes annually of the antibiotic colistin are routinely used to promote growth and prevent or treat disease in livestock, including pigs, cattle, and chickens. It’s even put into the feed for farm-raised fish.

Colistin, also known as polymyxin E, is one of a family of antibiotics first developed in the late 1950s. For a long time its severe side effects left it on the medicinal shelf. But in this age of increasing bacterial “superbug” resistance to antibiotics, polymyxins started being used to treat sick people as a “last line of defence” to save life when all else failed.

Then this past November came the publication in the scientific journal, Lancet, of the troubling findings of a study done by a team of Chinese researchers.

It started out as a “routine surveillance project” they said in their report. But they found an unexpected “major increase of colistin resistance” in samples taken from raw meat, livestock and even hospital patients in China. They started digging deeper, looking for “possible plasmid-mediated polymyxin resistance.”

In plain English, that means they were looking for evidence resistance to colistin had been transferred between genetically different bacteria, for the first time, ever. They found it.

The news sent public health officials in other countries, Canada included, taking another look at archived samples in storage for MCR-1. The big health news this week was that it had been found by Health Canada in a sample taken from a patient an Ottawa hospital in 2011, and two E. coli samples from beef sold in two locations in Ontario in 2010. The E. coli specimens involved were not the potentially deadly form of E. coli 0517, A Canadian Press article reported.

Suddenly, the search is on in Canada and world-wide for a way to block the movement of MCR-1 from one bacteria to another.

Gerry Wright, director of the Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, was quoted as saying “it wouldn’t be such a big deal if we had a big arsenal of antibiotics, but we don’t. There are no new antibiotics coming to market.

“So that’s the reason to be scared. This has the potential to affect us all.”

Two days after the Lancet article appeared in November a blogger who uses the on-line moniker, Mike the Mad Biologist, said “this is really bad news . . . If this doesn’t convince people to get serious about the agricultural side of the problem, I don’t know what will.”

I think he’s more angry than mad, with good reason. Surely it’s obvious that the widespread, routine use of antibiotics in agriculture is foolish.

“If this doesn’t convince people to get serious about the agricultural side of the problem, I don’t know what will,” Mike said.

He quoted the Chinese report, after criticizing Lancet for not making it freely available, referring to the rising multi-billion-dollar value in the global market for veterinary drugs, $20.1 billion in 2010. It’s expected to reach $43 billion by 2018.

“Driven largely by China, the global demand for colistin in agriculture is expected to reach 11,942 tonnes per annum by the end of 2015 . . . rising to 16,500 tonnes by the year 2021,” the report said.

“Of the top ten producers of colistin for veterinary use, one is Indian, one is Danish, and eight are Chinese.

“In 2015 the European Union and North America imported 480 tonnes and 700 tonnes respectively, of colistin from China.”

In Canada, regulatory changes quietly adopted by Health Canada last spring regarding the use of antibiotics to “promote growth” will end starting at the end of this year. Only antibiotics prescribed by veterinarians for medicinal use will be allowed. That may not be soon enough now.

The need to make sure that long-overdue regulatory change is monitored closely for compliance and appropriate usage (only when absolutely necessary) by federal and provincial public health agencies with real teeth is now more important than ever, sooner rather than later. Similar world-wide action should be taken, if it hasn’t been already, especially in China.

Meanwhile, you and I as consumers need to find out more about how the animals we eat for meat are raised, and make a choice – to eat, or not to eat.

Originally published in The Sun Times in January, 2016


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