August 24, 2023
FROM their use as growth promoters to the treatment of highly infectious and devastating diseases, antimicrobials are undoubtedly as close an ally to the farmer as a dog is to man. The sole reason; maximizing gains from the farming enterprise.

However, there exists now, sufficient evidence that given the current practices in the use of antimicrobials, this farmer’s buddy will soon shift camp and raise arms against the once beloved friend.

The disastrous effects have a potential to outstrip the farmer’s animal production concerns and threaten his very existence in an attack that will be largely a self-made nemesis than it would be a future novel catastrophe never before seen!  

Antimicrobials are agents that kill microorganisms or stop their growth. They can be grouped according to the microorganisms that they primarily act against, e.g., antibiotics act against bacteria, antifungal against fungi and antiviral against viruses.

Since their discovery antimicrobials have been used to treat infections that if otherwise left untreated would result in reduced yield, stunted growth, reduced fertility and even death in animals, plants and humans.

In animals, the most commonly used antimicrobials are antibiotics for both treatment and prevention of diseases. In the 1950s, as a means of addressing the rising demand for food, the use of antibiotics in food animals gained popularity as feed proficiency enhancers and growth promoters.

It is during this period that these antimicrobials became a farmer’s all-weather friend- during disease outbreaks and every day as the animals were fed. To date, a lot of countries without strict regulations still use antibiotics as growth promoters while other regions and countries, such as Europe have banned their use in food promotion and retained use for prophylactic and disease treatment where the yare used in higher doses than for disease promotion. It is estimated that by the year 2030, antibiotic use in animals will increase by 67%.

This raises the question of what risks are involved with antibiotic use in food animals and the immediate environment. While the benefits cannot be overemphasized, repeated use of these antimicrobials in small doses in food animals for such purposes as growth promotion, feed enhancement and prophylaxis has been identified as a contributing factor to their failure to treat infections that they were initially able to treat. This phenomenon is called antimicrobial resistance and is largely due to abuse and overuse of these antimicrobial agents

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR)occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites change over time and no longer respond to medicines making infections harder to treat and increasing the risk of disease spread, severe illness and death.

AMR is a natural process but as more antimicrobial agents are used irresponsibly, the process is accelerated with some antimicrobials becoming resistant to multiple drugs and hence becoming super bugs. This leaves the farmer with limited options and in some cases none at all when all the drugs of choice become resistant.

Transmission of the resistant genes occurs between animals and their environment. While a large proportion of antimicrobial resistance has arisen from application of antimicrobial drugs in food animals and their subsequent transmission among different species, misuse of these antibiotics in humans has also contributed a fair share. In many cases, the transfer of resistant traits of animal origin to humans has been clearly demonstrated and is a cause of concern especially given that many antimicrobials especially antibiotics used in food animals are the same or surrogates used in human therapeutic practice.

These antibiotics are crucial for the treatment of many common human disease-causing bacteria and as anti-infection agents in procedures such as surgery, organ transplantation and therapy for immature babies. Despite this importance, over 1 million people globally die from antimicrobial resistance associated deaths due to failure of antimicrobials.

The fight against super bugs has however not been entirely lost. It can be said that so many battles in the name of agents that have become resistant to many superbugs, has dealt a huge blow to the future of antimicrobials. Notwithstanding this, the war still rages with the most important artillery being the call for prudent use of antimicrobials by the farmer both for his animals and himself.

It entails putting in place strict biosecurity measures at the farm level to prevent infection and subsequent use of antimicrobials. Antimicrobials should only be used when prescribed by the veterinarian or doctor and taken for the prescribed length and dose of treatment even when the infection seems to have cleared.

Think about this for a moment. Next time you walk into a pharmacy and demand a dose of antibiotics for your chickens or cattle without a prescription and based on your neighbor’s experience with that antibiotic, remember that such an irresponsible use would contribute to development of resistance to that particular antibiotic. Should you fall sick following an infection, the same type of antibiotic may be prescribed but will fail to treat your infection. A simple infection, previously treated by that antibiotic would then become a complicated one and may lead to loss of life.

The same thing can happen with your animals and result in economic losses. What started as a farmer’s best friend -to treat infections thus preventing mortality, promote healthy growth for maximum profit would then become a farmer’s worst nightmare! Our once beloved allies against disease may turn arms against us but we have a choice to play safe with them and save our health, our animal health and the environment.

Dr. Sakajila(BVM)

Author is a passionate advocate for the prudent use of antimicrobials and practices veterinary medicine in Zambia. He has a strong working background in veterinary pharmaceuticals, which includes handling antimicrobials and reviewing pharmacovigilance reports and tracking antimicrobial resistance patterns especially in poultry.  

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