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Antibiotic resistant bacteria, a complex problem

Soon after the first usage of antibiotics in the forties of the last century some bacteria became resistant to the medicines. That was no surprise to the experts. When one uses an antibiotic it is a guarantee that some bacteria will resist the medicine, adapt themselves and become ‘immune’. This problem was enhanced by incorrect dosing and over use.

For a long time mankind was able to stay ahead of real problems. The discovery of newer, stronger and better antibiotics gave us the ability to treat diseases involving even the most resistant bacteria. But that time belongs to the past. The bacteria now have the upper hand; mankind is slowly running out of options due to a lack of research and investment done into possible new antibiotics and the simple fact that there are less and less viable options to explore. That sets off more and more alarm bells. Around the world tens of thousands of people are dying every year from bacterial infections we used to be able to treat successfully. To put things into context: a simple urinary infection can be deadly these days and one can succumb due to bacteria induced complications after undergoing basic surgery in a hospital.

In that context it is understandable that everything is done to reduce antibiotic resistance. The bulk of the work has to be done in human medicine. As long as people take two or three doses of cephalosporin to battle the flu, as is done in some parts of the world where it is easy to get hold of the medicines without a doctor's prescription, we are lost. That said it is too easy to point to excesses in other places and do nothing to reduce antibiotic resistance yourself.

That brings me to the livestock industry, poultry in particular. Across the world tonnes and tonnes of antibiotics are used in raising healthy, residue free poultry. As is in human medicine the usage of antibiotics in livestock is a necessity. Treating sick animals is our responsibility! Question is; when are we starting treatment and what sort of medicines are we using. Fact is that there are occasions we could use less and could resort to antibiotics that are less crucial for treating humans. Why use a third generation antibiotic when a simple treatment with first generation Doxycycline will do the job as well.

Unfortunately the problem is complex. Scandinavian human health officials recently reacted alarmed after about 50% of poultry tested positive for ESBL resistant e-coli bacteria. This may come as a surprise to many in the poultry industry as well. Scandinavian countries have a track record of hardly using any antibiotics at all. At this time they are still guessing what the exact sources are, it could even be imports, but an even further reduction of antibiotic usage will be the following step, that is for sure. As said before, without the use of antibiotics, there will be no resistant bacteria. Well, that is not 100% true, but one gets the point.

It may sound somewhat strange, but reducing antibiotic usage and preventing antibiotic resistance is not the main challenge of the poultry industry. The main challenge is to convince consumers and even politicians that poultry is safe and that the poultry industry is doing everything in its power to battle the problems involving antibiotics. Only by taking responsibility the poultry sector will keep its credibility. We know that poultry is only responsible for a small part of the world wide resistance problem, but it is a vulnerable spot where we can be attacked upon. Wouldn't it be a nice claim to make that we are using antibiotics to treat sick poultry in case of emergency, but use no critical medicines for humans?

Then and only then can the poultry industry not be held indirectly responsible for human deaths due to antibiotic resistance.

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