Senior medical figures join call for farm antibiotic reduction targets for first time

New targets must be set and met in both medicine and agriculture, say Royal Colleges in a letter published in The Times today to coincide with European Antibiotics Awareness Day.

For the first time, leaders in the medical community have spoken out against the government’s failure to set any targets for reducing farm antibiotic use, even though targets have been set on the medical side.

They are concerned that any improvement in medical stewardship of antibiotics could be undermined by continuing farm overuse. They highlight concerns that farm use of key antibiotics could be contributing to the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant E. coli infections in humans.

Almost half (42%) of antibiotics in the UK are given to intensively produced livestock, mainly pigs and poultry. New data published today by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) indicates that although there is a slight fall in overall farm use, farm use of antibiotics classified as Critically Important in human medicine has again risen, and is now at its highest level ever recorded.

In the meantime, a survey commissioned by the Longitude Prize – results of which are published today – has found that the public ranks the threat of antimicrobial resistance as second only to terrorist attack on the UK national risk register.

Welcoming today’s intervention by the Royal Colleges, Alison Craig, Campaign Manager of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said: “Antimicrobial resistance is an urgent problem causing rising public concern. The government must get a grip on overuse. By setting a target for reduction on the medical side, but not on the veterinary side, the government is neglecting half the problem. If they did this for other health issues, like cancer, there would be an outcry. The need for reduction targets on both sides is obvious, and we are relieved the medical community thinks so too.”

In a report published yesterday, 17 November, the European Centre for Disease Control said that antibiotic-resistance in E. coli to three key antibiotic classes was increasing across Europe, including in the UK.

Many antibiotic-resistant E. coli infections develop in the community, outside of hospitals, but two of the three key antibiotic classes are very rarely used in the community in human medicine and are much more widely used in farming. This suggests that farm antibiotic use may be contributing to resistance to a far greater extent than has been previously recognised.

The VMD report also shows that incidence of multi-resistant E. coli has increased for all farm-animal species tested – cattle, sheep and pigs – except poultry.

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