Academics accused of 'exaggeration' in new battle over factory farm antibiotic use
Posted: February 1st, 2012 - 3:11pm
Debate over role of farm animals in spreading of superbugs intensifies as scientific study downplaying fears is accused of serious flaws
'We infer that the local animal population is unlikely to be the major source of resistance diversity for humans. This suggests that current policy emphasis on restricting antimicrobial use in domestic animals may be overly simplistic.'
It was a bold conclusion that potentially threw a spanner in the works of the medical experts and campaigners pushing for new restrictions on the high-levels of farm antibiotic use in Europe.
Researchers, led by the University of Glasgow, looked at data on antimicrobial resistance in salmonella cases in farm animals and humans in Scotland and concluded that significant differences between the two made it 'unlikely' that local farm animals were the major source of resistance in humans.
'There were significantly more human-only types of resistance than we might have expected if the animal and human microbial communities were well-mixed,' said study co-author Professor Daniel Haydon, 'suggesting that the risk of resistances passing from animals to humans is lower than previous research has indicated.'
The authors went on to question moves to restrict the use of antimicrobials in farming - a direct challenge to EU policymakers who see growing evidence of its role in the emergence of new untreatable superbugs, albeit still a much smaller role than that arising from misuse and overuse in humans.
However, following accusations of bias by a leading academic and expert advisor to the WHO, the study's conclusions, published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, are looking increasingly flawed.
Everyone agrees on the need to reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics. If we don't find ways to cut our use in animals and humans then pretty soon serious infections, resistant to our existing and slowly emerging new antibiotics, are going to become untreatable.
But from this unified position, views about what to do to reduce antibiotic use diverge.
Representatives of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the EU parliament andcampaign groups like the Soil Association all call for a crackdown on antibiotic use in farming, which uses an estimated 50 per cent of all antibiotics prescribed in Europe. While accepting that human misuse is the biggest factor in the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance like MRSA, they say gross misuse in intensive farming is adding to the problem and is easier to tackle.
Farming lobby and veterinary groups dispute the urgent need to reduce antibiotic use. While supporting the need for 'prudent use' of antibiotics they say it must not come at the expense of animal health and welfare. Essentially arguing in favour of the status quo.
In political terms that position has been coming under increasing attack, culminating in avote in the EU parliament in October 2011 that called for a ban on the prophylactic use of antibiotics (given as a preventative measure before animals get sick). MEPs also called for an end to the use of those antibiotics that are critically important in human health.