Updated: Jan 27
By Sanjana Rao, Ph.D
Does the use of antibiotics in animals affect human health?
The overuse and misuse of antibiotics contribute to the global crisis of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistance is a condition where a bacteria can no longer be killed by any antibiotic (Read more here). Antibiotics are not only used inappropriately in humans but also in animals. In food animals, while antibiotics are used to cure disease, low doses of antibiotics are also added to animal feed to promote growth. This leads to a greater production of meat or milk in shorter periods of time.
Much like humans, animals also carry resistant bacteria in their gut. When they are slaughtered, these bacteria can easily contaminate meat or other animal products. Farm and slaughterhouse workers, veterinarians, and those in close contact with farm workers are directly at risk of being infected with resistant bacteria through close contact with colonized or infected animals and this can be spread to populations in general directly or indirectly. Moreover, animal waste tainted with these resistant bacteria can also spread via soil and water. When resistant superbugs jump to humans they can cause serious infections and even death. Using antibiotics unwisely or for non-therapeutic purposes has led to the spread of resistant bacteria in humans.
An article published in the renowned journal Science last year showed that countries like India, China, Kenya, Uruguay, and Brazil have the highest rates of antibiotic resistance amongst farm animals. The researchers found that farmers tend to use four specific types of antimicrobial drugs — usually to stimulate the animals to put on weight. Studies also indicate that significant portions of antibiotics are also released through milk of dairy animals.
Using antibiotics as growth promoters has been banned in the European Union since 2006, and in the US was made illegal in 2017. In countries like India, a recent investigative report found, a last line antibiotic (only to be used for the critically ill) called colistin is still widely used in poultry for growth promotion. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for the use of such antibiotics, which it calls “critically important to human medicine”, to be restricted in animals and banned as growth promoters. Their continued use in farming increases the chance bacteria will develop resistance to them, leaving them useless when treating patients. It is critical that developing countries like India enforce stronger regulations to combat unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals which in turn have drastic consequences on human health. In order to combat antibiotic resistance as a whole, a global and multisectoral effort, referred by the WHO as the “One Health approach” has been recommended to be undertaken.
How to protect yourself?
Lower consumption of meat especially from animals grown on antibiotics.
Buy only organic meat from local suppliers if possible.
Practice good food hygiene: Wash your hands, use separate cutting boards for different foods and wash utensils thoroughly.
Ensure food is cooked properly: Cooking meat to the proper temperature should kill any harmful bacteria.
Switch to organic dairy products wherever possible and avoid unpasteurized milk.
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