Superbug threat is a 'ticking time bomb'
Viva!Health’s Senior Researcher, Dr Justine Butler, spent this week in Westminster, attending two all-party parliamentary group (APPG) meetings at the House of Lords. Here’s her account of what happened at the first meeting.
Antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, known as ‘superbugs’, are spreading in the UK and worldwide. More and more people are suffering from infections that can’t be treated. In his chilling 2016 report, Lord Jim O’Neill predicted that by 2050, 10 million people a year could be dying from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bugs – more people than currently die from cancer.
A bit of background…
Antimicrobial-resistance (AMR) develops when bacteria are exposed to antibiotics. It happens because random DNA mutations occur naturally and spontaneously in bacteria, these may help, hinder or have no effect at all. If a mutation helps a single bacterium survive, while all the others around die, that one will then go on to reproduce, spreading and taking the resistance gene along, like an accessory enabling it to survive in a hostile environment – the genetic equivalent of a stab-vest or gas mask! This is what happens when antibiotics are overused – there is a ‘selective pressure’ that drives the emergence of superbugs.
Not long after antibiotics were first used widely in humans it was discovered that they could promote growth when given to farm animals at low levels. However, using them in this way encourages the development of resistant bacteria. Despite a 2006 EU-wide ban on growth-promoting antibiotics added to animal feed, huge quantities continue to be given for ‘disease prevention’.
O’Neill’s report described how the quantity of antibiotics used in livestock is vast. In the US, for example, 70 per cent of the antibiotics defined as medically important for humans, are sold for use in animals. Estimates show that India too, is using more antibiotics in animals than humans. Many other countries are also likely to use more antibiotics in agriculture than in humans but don’t publish the information.
Professor Colin Garner, chief executive of Antibiotic Research UK said: “It is entirely possible in 2018 that you can die of an insect bite, not just in some hot foreign clime, but here in Britain.”
"Now we are in real danger that we could return to a pre-antibiotic past, where dirty wounds, bites and conditions like TB and Typhoid might kill”.
The Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, says antimicrobial resistance represents a threat that may be “as important as climate change for the world”.
In the light of these concerns, the All-Party Parliamentary Food and Health Forum called a meeting on Tuesday July 17 2018 to discuss AMR.
Speaking at the meeting, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, described how the UK government is attempting to tackle the problem with a three-pronged strategy:
- PREVENT people from being infected
- PRESERVE the antibiotics we have
- PROMOTE development of new antimicrobials
Van-Tam described how in the UK, antibiotic use in both animals and humans has reduced. He described how in 2016, a target was set to reduce antibiotic use in livestock and fish to 50 mg per kg by 2018. This target has been reached, but is it enough?
John Fishwick, President of the British Veterinary Association, talked about measures that have been taken to help combat AMR, such as the 2006 ban on the use of antibiotics as growth promotors. I asked him about the colistin-resistant bacteria found in pigs in China in 2015. He said it was alarming and a cause for concern. He described colistin as a critically important antibiotic (CIA), also known as a last-resort antibiotic for infections that are hard to treat. If resistance to colistin develops, which it has, there may be nowhere else to go!
Antibiotic-resistance can spread from one country to another, even if colistin has not been misused in the country resistant superbugs occur in. Professor Tim Walsh from Cardiff University published a study in 2017 suggesting that in China, flies could be spreading resistance from farm animals to people.
Colistin was banned from use in animal feed in Brazil in 2016 and China in 2017, but concerns are that this is too little, too late. Scientists are unsure how much this late action will curb the spread of resistance genes. This wake-up call about the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals may have gone beyond a critical point.
It was suggested at the meeting that colistin should be completely banned from use in farmed animals – this would seem to be a sensible approach that should have happened already! The colistin-resistance gene has now been detected in more than 30 countries (including the UK), on five continents.
The government are promoting strategies to combat this problem but it could be argued they are not doing enough. Of course, the meat and dairy industries will inevitably be resistant to change, driven on by the increasing desire for large quantities of cheap meat. Rather like the government’s hesitance to take a stronger position on healthy eating, the meat and dairy industry are standing in the way of common sense.
The government says that its top priority is working with international partners to create a global approach to funding new antimicrobials, especially antibiotics. Could this be shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Do we have time to develop new drugs?
Surely the obvious and faster solution is to dramatically reduce the consumption of meat, dairy and fish – the best solution is to go vegan! Viva!Health would like to see a stronger message from the government on this – AMR poses a catastrophic threat and urgent action is required now.
Watch Viva!'s short film Swine exposing the dirty secrets of UK factory farming!
For more information about going vegan see Going Vegan.