by Larry Powell
|Prairie producers were feeding more antibiotics to their pigs in 2018 than 2017.|
Antibiotics have been bestowing a world of good on the human condition ever since - and even before - Alexander Fleming discovered the most famous one - penicillin - almost a century ago. Thanks to their ability to counter deadly infections - life expectancies have increased dramatically - and millions of lives have been saved - truly a turning point in the history of mankind.
But storm clouds have been gathering over this “age of enlightenment” for some time now.
It’s called “Antimicrobial resistance.” AMR happens when antibiotics are used too much, or for the wrong reasons. This does happen when treating people. However, as our own Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) makes clear, the real story lies elsewhere.
“There’s increasing evidence,” PHAC warns on its website, “that the use of antimicrobial agents in veterinary medicine and livestock production is an important contributing factor in the emergence of bacteria in people which have grown resistant to these medications.”
And the World Health Organization leaves little doubt about what should be done. “Simply stop giving animals such medications altogether, whether to promote growth or prevent disease. Healthy animals should only be treated if disease is diagnosed elsewhere in the same herd. And, even while treating animals already sick, only medications not considered critical for the treatment of human infections, should be used.”
If that’s the advice, what’s the reality?
The “Canadian Integrated Program for Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance” is federally-mandated to find out how many of these drugs are used and why. Here’s what the 2018 CIPARS report reveals.
The use of antibiotics by industrial hog producers across the country was still common that year. (No more recent figures are available.)And, producers were still administering them for all the reasons warned against by the WHO. (See graph.)
They included nineteen different antibiotics considered important in the treatment of human infections.
Producers in Ontario and Quebec actually fed “significantly less” than they had in 2017. But, for their counterparts on the prairies (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) it was a different story. In terms of both dosage numbers and quantities, they fed more.
While the Prairie industry actually administered fewer drugs by injection than they had the year before, one of the products injected remains of particular concern. Ceftiofur is considered to be of “very high importance” in human medicine. And that’s because, while it’s not used on people, it’s closely related to another, ceftriaxone which is. And its feared, resistance which may develop to one, could readily transfer to the other.
The role of the livestock industry - and its consequences.
Almost eighty percent of antibiotics sold in this country are used to raise animals for food. And one rough estimate from the Food and Agriculture Organization places yearly usage in the world’s livestock, at a-quarter-million tonnes.
Such volumes provide ideal conditions for harmful microbes to develop resistance and grow into “superbugs.” These can then be transferred to those of us who eat the meat. And when we become sick, fewer and fewer of the best drugs used to treat us, are working.
“If AMR isn’t contained,” cautions the WHO, “medical procedures such as caesarean sections, hip replacements, cancer chemotherapy, organ transplantation, malaria, tuberculosis and even childbirth will become increasingly risky.”
Just over a year ago, the Council of Canadian Academies confirmed that more than five thousand people had died as a direct result of AMR in 2018. And, if resistance continues to rise (which is considered highly likely), almost 400 thousand more of us will probably succumb by 2050.
And the O’ Neill report commissioned by the UK government in 2014 predicted that, by mid-century, AMR will claim ten million lives a year, more than cancer itself. As the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, ominously concluded, “If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine"
My request for comment from Manitoba Pork, which represents the industry here, went unanswered.
Given the dominance of the pork industry in Manitoba, where I live, I've been focussing on it in my research. This is why other livestock sectors are not mentioned here. l.p.