If the livestock sector is to play the pivotal role it can, and should, in sustainable and safe, global food production, antibiotics must return to their proper place in the disease management matrix, says Afrivet’s Dr Riaan du Preez.

A new report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says the livestock sector can contribute significantly towards achieving the UN’s 2030 sustainable development goals, provided key changes to policies and practices are made. Antibiotic use is specifically mentioned.

“There is an urgent need to stop the improper use of antimicrobials in animal rearing,” said FAO’s director-general, Jose Graziano da Silva. He refers explicitly to the injudicious use of antibiotics and the role this plays in the rise of dangerous antimicrobial-resistant organisms.

New Businesses Development manager at Afrivet, Dr Riaan du Preez agrees. As South Africa’s biggest wholly locally owned animal health company, Afrivet is keenly aware of the issue of antimicrobial resistance.

Specific disease treatment

“The shotgun approach to using antibiotics, aggravated by incorrect dosages and inappropriate application, is costing us dearly,” says Du Preez. “Bacteria develop resistance to the synthetic remedies designed to kill them. This is especially true when they are unnecessarily exposed to these products over long periods of time at relatively low dosages, as sometimes happens in the food production industry.”

The problem, says Du Preez, comes down to the absence of evidence-based medicine. In too many cases, farmers, and even veterinarians, treat herds according to common wisdom or habit, instead of basing their decisions on evidence gathered through rigorous scientific testing in laboratories. “We need disease incidences to be monitored so that we can understand the changes – including resistance development – that happen over time,” says Du Preez.

He says antibiotics should only be given to specific animals for specific diseases, and then only once the evidence shown justifies the use. “We will always need antibiotics, but antibiotic medicine has to be the treatment of last resort. Blanket prophylactic antibiotic use must be phased out; antibiotics should be used exclusively for disease treatment.”

The use of antibiotics as a preventative measure is particularly prevalent in intensive cattle, sheep, and chicken farming, and the like. “It has to stop,” says Du Preez. “Farmers have to revert to good management practices and best-practice biosecurity measures to manage their operations, regardless of size.”

He suggests a three-pronged approach:

  1. Increased biosecurity and hygiene around animal rearing, such as the use of foot baths and clean over clothes for animal handlers and strict access control measures.
  2. A return to vaccination as the preferred preventative action, supported by the development of new and improved vaccines.
  3. A focus on feeding and nutrients, including probiotics, to stimulate and modulate animals’ immune systems to render them more robust. Once an animal’s micro-biome is in balance and functioning optimally, the immune system follows suit.

Returning to the notion of evidence-based medicine, Du Preez advocates for a far closer working relationship between farmers, their herdsmen, veterinarians and animal health technicians. The aim is to identify a disease as soon as possible so that it can be treated before it spreads.

Such identification should be done through clinical examinations or post mortems – both involving the analysis of biological samples. Proper observation and examination of herds fostered through proper training of those who are the first line of defence against disease, viz. the herdsmen and farmers is the foundation of any plan and structure. Armed with evidence-based information, veterinary professionals can then treat the affected animals with antibiotics, and advise farmers on the vaccines and/or nutritional interventions needed to keep the rest of a herd or flock healthy.

Du Preez appreciates the magnitude of the task at hand. He acknowledges that in many cases farmers are unaware of preventative measures, and that emerging farmers in particular regard antibiotics as a magic remedy. “Companies like ours have a massive training and education job ahead of us,” he says.

When it comes to the bigger producers, however, he feels that the consumers of meat have a significant role to play. “Consumers are becoming more aware of the adverse impact the injudicious use of some animal antibiotics have on human health. They have a responsibility to make their voices heard and encourage those large commercial farmers who may not follow the protocols proposed, to mend their ways. In addition, the government has little choice but to step up its residue monitoring and enforcement efforts in the light of international trade agreements. Failure will result in a ban on South African meat exports.”

It is clear that there is much to gain from changing our antibiotics ways – almost as much as we stand to lose by not taking action now. –  Press release