WHO Strongly Urges Farmers to End Routine Antibiotic Use in Farm Animals

WHO Strongly Urges Farmers to End Routine Antibiotic Use in Farm Animals
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The World Health Organization (WHO) is urging governments worldwide to follow the example of Denmark and the Netherlands and ban the use of antibiotics in pigs, chickens, and cattle that are raised for meat to make the animals grow faster or to prevent illness. Doing so is necessary, the global health body says, for preventing the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. [1]

According to Marc Sprenger, a scientist at the WHO, the “over-use and misuse of antimicrobials” is a problem in both human medicine and on farms. However, more unnecessary antibiotics are given to farm animals than are prescribed to treat humans by far in many countries, including the United States.

Kazuaki Miyagishima, director of the Department of Food Safety at the WHO, said:

“It’s very important that we reduce use in human medicine and in animal production.”

In a first for the organization, the WHO issued formal guidelines for how antibiotics should be used on farms:

  • Antibiotics cannot be used to speed the growth of or merely prevent illness in farm animals.
  • Veterinarians should avoid prescribing antibiotics that are most critical to human health.
  • Governments are urged to ban the use in animals of any new antibiotics that may be discovered by scientists in the future.

Said Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at The George Washington University:

“These [guidelines] are a great starting place, and taking these actions would make a huge difference.

Some countries take these kind of things – WHO recommendations – more seriously than others, but I do think it is important to have these guidelines codified by a very respected international group dedicated to protecting human health.” [2]

Such rules have existed in the European Union (EU) since 2006.

By comparison, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has worked with pharmaceutical companies to ban the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster, but veterinarians are still permitted to prescribe these drugs to prevent illness. Critics worry this loophole will allow farmers to continue to feed animals unnecessary drugs. [1]

But the situation is especially dire in China, where antibiotic use in farm animals increased even as it decreased in the U.S. Chinese farmers started using Colistin – a last-resort antibiotics that is used in humans, but sparingly due to its harsh side effects – to promote growth and prevent disease in pigs, and started to see an alarming spike in drug resistance among the animals. [2]

In some places, nearly 100% of hogs carry a resistance gene called mcr-1. The gene is frightening enough, but it is also on a DNA ring called a plasmid that can be easily transferred from one species of bacteria to another, multiplying the danger. The resistance gene already found its way into one human, so far, in a Pennsylvania woman.

Fortunately, the mcr-1 scare was enough to convince the Chinese government to ban the use of Colistin in animal feed.

Countries are not legally required to follow WHO recommendations, says Kazuaki Miyagishima, director of the WHO’s Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses. However, the CODEX Alimentarius task force – an intergovernmental group which reviews these recommendations and other data – could decide go a step further and codify them into international standards that could be used to regulate global trade.

Last September, the United Nations joined a political declaration to fight the rising threat of antibiotic resistance. It was only the 4th time such a high-level meeting took place to discuss a health issue – the others focused on HIV, noncommunicable diseases, and the Ebola virus. [3]

The importance of drastically reducing antibiotic use on farms cannot be overstated. The WHO says that there are “very few promising options in the research pipeline” to replace current antibiotics.


[1] NPR

[2] Scientific American

[3] The Huffington Post