Monday, 18 November 2013

Antibiotic Awareness Day: It's time for urgent action to save modern medicine

Today (Monday 18 November) is European Antibiotics Awareness Day and in Australia, the USA and Canada, the whole week of 18- 24 November is being dedicated to Antibiotics Awareness. CI food expert Anna Glayzer explains the industry practices that are exacerbating the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria and examines how the consumer movement can combat the problem.

The more you know about the impending antibiotics crisis, the more surprising it is that an awareness raising  day, or even week, is necessary.

The word crisis gets used a lot by campaigners.  In this instance, it isn’t hyperbole.

At the start of this year the World Economic Forum included antibiotic resistance in its Global Risk Report .

Indeed, Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for the UK government, has said that the problem of microbes becoming increasingly resistant to the most powerful drugs should be ranked alongside terrorism and climate change on the list of critical risks.

Last year Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization, warned: “A post-antibiotic era means, in effect, an end to modern medicine as we know it. Things as common as strep throat or a child’s scratched knee could once again kill.”

These are not radical organisations or individuals on the fringes of science raising lone voices in alarm. There is a strong scientific consensus that we should be very worried.

Put simply, as bacteria becomes resistant to antibiotics, those antibiotics become ineffective. The development of resistance is a natural process, as bacteria are living, evolving organisms.

The more antibiotics we use, the faster resistance develops and spreads. Our sewers, rivers and soils are increasingly populated by antibiotic resistant bacteria.

In order to preserve their effectiveness, use of antibiotics urgently needs to be limited to the strictly necessary.

Combined with this, new antibiotics are not being brought to market. There hasn’t been a new class of antibiotics since 1987.

There are a number of reasons for this. Part of the problem is that pharmaceutical companies are not incentivised to spend money on R&D that they are unlikely to recoup when the drugs are subject to controls, or quickly rendered ineffective because of misuse.

The causes and solutions to the problem of mass over-use of antibiotics are complex, and require global co-operation. Part of the solution is to stop feeding animals antibiotics.

In the USA 80% of antibiotics consumed are taken by farm animals.

In most parts of the world, antibiotics are fed to animals to make them grow faster, a practice that has been going on since the 1940s.

The use of antibiotics as growth promoters is banned in Europe, but routine preventative dosing of healthy animals is still common.

Factory farm conditions, in which vast numbers of animals are kept in close quarters, accentuates the risks of diseases spreading, and leads to greater use of antibiotics.

Aside from accelerating our approach to ‘a post-antibiotic era’, the practice of giving antibiotics to animals represents a direct threat to human health.

Tests by consumer groups have repeatedly shown samples of meat and poultry to be home to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Resistant microorganisms carried by food-producing animals can spread to humans through consumption of contaminated food, from direct contact with animals, or by environmental spread, for example in contaminated water or soil.

Furthermore, the genes coding for antibiotic resistance can be transferred from bacteria carried by animals to bacteria that cause disease in humans.

Governments need to act urgently, at the national and international levels.  In the meantime, consumer organisations have a key role to play in generating more evidence, lobbying for change and spreading awareness.

As Margaret Chan puts it:  ‘Never underestimate the importance of consumer groups and civil society in combating antimicrobial resistance. They are important movers, shakers, and frontline players, especially in this age of social media.”

Happy antibiotics awareness day!

:: CI will publish a policy position paper on this topic shortly.  Please contact me if you are interested in disussing this further, or require any more information.

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