Long-run considerations at heart of antibiotic warning

When it comes to a recent Ontario Medical Association (OMA) recommendation to ban the use of antibiotics in livestock feed, it’s a matter of considering what will cost more in the long run, according to a Western researcher.

While restricting antibiotic use in livestock feed will result in paying more for meat at the grocery store, continuing its use could result in a much higher tab for the province’s health-care industry, said Martin McGavin, who teaches in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Western.

Late last month, the OMA released a report calling for better regulations in prescribing antibiotics in humans and a restricted use of antibiotics in farm animals.

The report, When Antibiotics Stop Working, stated antibiotics are not as effective as they once were because bacteria are adapting to them. These resistant bacteria are germs that can cause infections like pneumonia, urinary tract infections or skin infections.

“Patients are at risk of becoming sicker, taking longer to recover and in some cases dying from previously treatable diseases. Data shows that we can reduce antibiotic resistant bacteria when the use of antibiotics is modified. Adopting the recommendations in the report will help us achieve this,” said Dr. Doug Weir, OMA president.

For example, the report cited one dose of antibiotics a decade ago could have effectively treated a child suffering from strep throat, but it is now becoming more common for a child to have repeated strep throat infections, and for these to develop into more serious consequences, like scarlet fever. And if the first-choice antibiotic fails, physicians are forced to prescribe new ones with harsher side effects.

That’s the real issue the OMA recommendation is trying to curb, McGavin said.

“The overall OMA concern is a tendency to overprescribe antibiotics and tighter rules to govern the use of antibiotics in food and animals. We need better stewardship (of antibiotic use),” McGavin said, explaining farmers currently use antibiotics in livestock feed even in healthy animals because its use promotes health while ensuring a faster rate of growth.

“The farmers are content animals grow faster, because they’re healthier. Farmers see it as getting more growth per unit of food, a higher production rate but a lesser cost. But you should only use antibiotics in animals when they’re not healthy.”

In other words, humans who consume meat from animals that consumed antibiotic-laden feed could get sick – but the usual round of antibiotic treatment won’t work.

“Continued use of antibiotics will promote drug resistance and we will see the cost of that in healthcare. One way or another, we will see the cost of this and it will be a huge cost if it promotes strains resistant to all antibiotics,” McGavin said.

“That cost will be higher in terms of dollars and human suffering than with fixing the issue.”

Farmers may protest, saying the OMA recommendation would force them to change some practices and charge more for their product. The general public could also protest because the average person doesn’t want to pay more for food.

But a lot of people already go to the grocery store and opt for organic produce and meat, McGavin added, so the recommendation, if mandated into a law wouldn’t change all that much.

“A lot of people are willing to pay a premium for these products, so it’s not that big a leap, I think. In a sense, this practice is already out there,” he said.

“If it’s mandated, the farmers would have to go along with (the recommendation). They do acknowledge the situation and I think they are open to talks and further communications in this regard, and they don’t sound like they’re strongly against it. They have to be aware that if their practices promote spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, this doesn’t reflect well on farming as an industry.”

McGavin explained the development of antibiotic-resistant bugs is more prevalent in pigs and chicken because these animals are raised in much higher density than cows. The higher the density, the more increased the risk of animal infection, he said, noting these are situations in which the use of antibiotics would be appropriate.

What’s more, these types of discussions will lead to better ways of treating animal ailments, he added.

“These types of decisions will spur more research into things like types of vaccines. If there are common pathogens these animas get, then research can develop vaccines so animals would be resistant to bacteria and they won’t need antibiotics. And that would lower the risk of infection.”