Ban vets from using 'last resort' antibiotics to beat drug-resistant bacteria, say campaigners

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Vets must be banned from using antibiotics regarded as “last resorts” in medicine, campaigners have said, amid growing evidence that antibiotic use in livestock is contributing to a spike in drug-resistant hospital infections.

Figures released last week showed a sharp rise in the number of patients who have not responded to treatment by an important group of antibiotics called carbapanems, which are only used when other antibiotics have failed.

A new campaign group, the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, said that the use of carbapanems by vets should be subject to a complete ban, warning that efforts to prevent antibiotic use by doctors might prove “futile” if the “profligate excesses in farming are allowed to continue”.

Antibiotic resistance is growing across the world. Health experts say that the problem is one of the major threats to global health, and could plunge modern medicine into a “19th century situation” in which routine operations are deadly because of the risk of infection.

Overuse of antibiotics in both medicine and agriculture, and slow progress in producing new varieties of drugs, has driven bacteria to evolve to be resistant to existing treatments. 

The number of carbapanem-resistant hospital infections rose to 600 in 2013, from just five in 2006, Public Health England said last week.

England’s chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies will give evidence on the issue to the influential House of Commons science and technology committee on Wednesday, alongside chief veterinary officer Nigel Gibbens.

Alison Craig, of the Alliance, which was founded by the Soil Association, in collaboration with Compassion in World Farming and Sustain, said that the evidence session was a crucial opportunity for MPs to grasp the scale of the problem.

“We have long known that the excessive and unethical use of antibiotics in livestock production is worsening the threat to human health”, she said. “But it is shocking to realise that there is nothing in the regulations to stop farmers using the 'last resort' drugs intended for use in human medicine.

The group wants to see the use of all antibiotics in agriculture eventually phased out, and an end to intensive farming practices which increase the risk of infections. An EU report last year said that the cost of such reforms would be high, warning that: “Unless consumers are prepared to pay a premium for food produced by means designed to lower the risk of transmitting antimicrobial resistance (while not compromising animal welfare) the potential for unintended consequences of certain measures that may be used to control antimicrobial resistance is high”.