By JEFF LEJEUNE and TERRY KLINE
WOOSTER, Ohio — Antibiotic resistance is a topic that finds its way into the popular press with great frequency.
It seems like a week doesn’t go by without a story appearing about Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) or flesh-eating bacteria, and we have all heard the tales of the rise of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, or of the traces of antibiotics found in drinking water.
When the popular press looks for a culprit to bear the blame for these impending crises, they never look any further than livestock agriculture — which begs the question, do we bear any of the responsibility for these problems?
Antibiotics are the wonder drugs of the industrialized world. Our life expectancy has increased by decades over the last 100 years, and at least part of that increase is due to the advent of antibiotics. We are no longer victimized by diseases that used to devastate our population. Antibiotics have also enabled production animals to live longer, grow bigger and produce more.
Have we used antibiotics wisely or have we contributed to the increasing numbers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our environment? As veterinarians and producers, we should follow one simple rule when it comes to antibiotic use: Only use antibiotics when they are absolutely necessary.
Antibiotics cannot make up for poor management. If producers practice good parasite control, stress reduction, nutritional management and environmental management, they will have fewer sick animals to treat.
It is also important to remember that not everything that causes illness in animals can be treated with antibiotics. Viruses do not respond to antibiotics and treating an animal suffering from a viral illness with antibiotics is inviting resistance formation.
A survey of Ohio dairy veterinarians by the Food Animal Health Research Program at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, found that approximately 42 percent of the veterinarians surveyed had not observed decreased effectiveness of antibiotics used to treat dairy cattle. But more than 50 percent agreed that the emergence of antibiotic resistance would have negative consequences on animal health.
Most of the veterinarians reported that less than one-fourth of their clients routinely asked about antibiotic resistance.
Most of the veterinarians in this survey felt that the use of antibiotics on dairy farms without consulting with a veterinarian is a selection pressure for drug resistance and most knew of cases where this was occurring.
Producers are often tempted to dose a sick animal with antibiotics that they have on hand, rather than calling a veterinarian to see if antibiotics are even required. While this may save money in the short-term, it is a practice that can end up costing the entire industry as more resistant strains of bacteria develop.
As healthcare professionals, we veterinarians and our counterparts in human medicine often feel that if we do not provide an antibiotic to each individual patient, our services are being judged as inadequate. This is a mindset that we can not afford to indulge in, as more and more antibiotics are showing resistance.
Although antibiotic use in food-producing animals can contribute to antibiotic resistance, the cause of the problem does not rest entirely with agriculture. The problem is more complicated than that, and the blame needs to be shared between many segments of our society, including the use of antibiotics in pets and prescriptions of antibiotics used in human medicine.
As food-producers, we can make sure that we do our part in controlling this emerging problem by following good management practices and by using antibiotics only when they are absolutely called for.
Everyone can play a role by following his physician’s or veterinarian’s recommendations and completing the course of all antibiotics prescribed to them.
(The authors are researchers with the Food Animal Health Research Program at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, Ohio.)
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