The Problem With Antibiotics

We live in a world built upon the foundations of many advances; advances that are now woven into the fabric of our daily lives. These shifts were truly game-changing at the time, met with universally rapturous approval, but now many of them are such a fundamental part of the human life that we fail to understand how things were before.

Antibiotics are one such advancement, and a cornerstone one at that. How many people give thought to the fact that the common ear infection used to often lead to deafness? Or how one out of nine skin infections resulted in a fatality? Or how surgeries, from life-saving to cosmetic, are successful in large part because of an antibiotics’ ability to treat an infection?

How big of a problem is antibiotic use?

If you’ve picked up a paper in recent years, you no doubt are aware of the stories claiming that our vital safety net is being shredded by many factors relating to how we use antibiotics. The livestock industry is on the front lines of this debate, with a figure of 80% of antibiotic use in the U.S. taking place on farms and feedlots. It turns out that this number isn’t very accurate and antibiotics are used in humans, dogs and cats to a much greater degree than on the farm.

There is no getting around the fact that bacteria resistant to antibiotics is bad news for humans and livestock alike. One of the biggest challenges is finding clear objective facts to illuminate the problem so that we could easily agree on a strategy to solve it.

Right now, we aren’t there yet. On the one side, we have publications using doomsday language like “Apocalypse Pig” and talk of a post-antibiotic world, with the villains played by mustache-twisting producers and vets who treat animals with antibiotics.

Once resistant bacteria are on the farm, it’s only a matter of time before they’re on the farm next door, the slaughterhouses, supermarkets and, ultimately, into us.

It’s in the meat. It’s in the waste. Hell, it’s even in the air!

If you want to take a swig of a stiff drink, now is the time.

Is the farm at fault for antibiotic resistance?

The other side of the argument is not necessarily rosy, but it does pour cold water over the notion that the livestock industry is obviously to blame. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Infectious Disease Society of America have made it clear that the kinds of antibiotic-resistant bacterial diseases that are most at risk for humans are not related to the use of antibiotics in livestock farming.

The truth is we just don’t know enough about how these bacteria create their resistance.

Do we use fewer antibiotics, in which case more bacteria will survive treatments and potentially now have greater resistance to the treatment? Do we use more antibiotics, to try and kill as much of the bacteria as possible, even though this overdosing may result in fewer bacteria that are even more resistant? Or what if bacteria evolve and gain resistance by pure chance, with our input has very little to do with it?

From 1995-2001, Denmark took policy measures to reduce antibiotic use in livestock farming by banning the use of growth promoting antibiotics, which many consider to be an unnecessary use of medicine. The policy continues today, and the results are, yet again, inconclusive in a number of areas.

What about the health of animals?

What is conclusive is that this ban has not helped the growing resistance problem in humans, or helped human health to any noticeable extent. There is also data that suggests that animal health may be negatively affected, and this is a factor that is often overlooked.

We surely have a moral duty to ensure that animals are not suffering unduly, but illness and premature death will become synonymous with livestock production if we get too ban-happy about antibiotics. Even if measures like this would reduce the number of resistant strains, it would potentially open the door to more sick animals ending up as produce.

After all, healthy animals mean healthy food products.

Let’s also not forget that less antibiotic use will also place a strain on the economics of the industry and it will be the consumer that will have to carry the burden of the increased cost of creating food products.

At this point, you may want to take another swig.

The future of livestock medications

A new report was commissioned by the UK government to seek some answers. You can view the entire report here.

The report highlighted the fact that this is not a regional problem, but a global one that calls for global solutions, such as a “global target” for antibiotic use in farming, combined with tighter restrictions on the use of antibiotics that are vital for humans. These measures would effectively reduce antibiotic use by a third and take the common sense approach of realizing that not all antibiotics are the same.

If we can agree upon global targets that are based on data that is closely tracked, which considers human health, animal health and the economics of the industry, we inevitably give ourselves the best chance of success.

The challenge then becomes purely implementation.

automed seeks to help the cause

At automed we have personally been studying this problem for over a decade. It is why we have devoted our time and resources to finding solutions that can help the livestock industry.

We believe that our product, automed, can be of great aid to traceability and compliance in the livestock industry. automed offers a simple and robust automated process that will benefit producers, pharmaceutical companies, regulators, the supply chain and consumers.

Being able to provide accurate dosing and to know what every animal has recieved are two key areas in the fight to return confidence in livestock production.

With more measures like this we can hopefully contribute to keeping our vital antibiotic safety net secure for a long time to come.

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