Nation's antibiotic use praised

Melissa WilliamsCountryman

An international food safety expert has praised Australia's strict controls on use of antibiotics in animals.

UK-based microbial geneticist John Threlfall was in Perth last week to outline the latest tactics being employed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to combat the increasing global problem of antibiotic resistance in the animals we eat.

Speaking at Curtin University's annual Aileen Plant Memorial Lecture, he said bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter (which causes gastroenteritis) were present in cattle, sheep and chickens.

These animals could be given antibiotics (or antimicrobials) by veterinarians to treat the bacterial infections, which could then lead to the bacteria becoming resistant to the drugs administered.

When humans eat meat from these animals, they can then get sick from the bacteria. However, prescribed antibiotics to treat the infection may no longer be effective.

"It is of concern that antimicrobial resistance is rapidly accelerating in bacteria that cause infections in people and animals," Professor Threlfall said. "Use of antibiotics in fish farming is an emerging problem in far eastern areas (of Europe), as this is causing a lot of bacteria resistance. Birds and poultry are another area of concern because bird meat and eggs in various stages of 'rawness' are eaten by humans."

Professor Threlfall said the UK had experienced recent widespread human outbreaks of strains of salmonella infections with significant antibiotic resistance.

He said salmonella and other diseases, including E. coli, campylobacter, listeria and Q fever, that could be transmitted from animals to people were responsible for some of Europe's most serious public health problems.

The WHO estimates this group of diseases - called zoonoses - strikes down 14 million people across the globe each year and accounts for more than 75 per cent of new and emerging infections.

In the European Union, the cost of these diseases is estimated to be six billion euro a year.

Professor Threlfall said events such as avian and swine flu outbreaks further highlighted the serious worldwide consequences of increasing antibiotic resistance among some bacteria.

He said scientists across the globe were collaborating and working to uncover the links between animal and human zoonotic diseases and promote the importance of food security and regulations to safeguard the entire food chain.

Professor Threlfall said Australia had a lower incidence of diseases that were resistant to antibiotic drugs than in the EU.

"Australia is a model country where possible problems were identified early and strict controls (on antibiotic use in animals) were put in place," he said.

"Antibiotic use in animals in Australia is very constrained."

But Professor Threlfall warned that Australian authorities could not afford to become complacent about potential human antibiotic resistance problems, because resistant strains could be imported from humans who travelled overseas.

"We are in a global community where every country is exposed to resistant bacteria strains, so Australia - although geographically isolated to some extent - needs to continue to be cautious and vigilant," he said.

Professor Threlfall said the UK had imposed national restrictions on the use of some antimicrobials in food-producing animals and across the EU, member states had banned the use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion.

He said for local farmers this meant changing husbandry techniques and, in some cases, administering lower doses of antibiotics to animals. "In some Nordic countries, there have been total restrictions of use of antibiotics in animals," he said.

"The issue is more pressing for farmers using intensive animal systems, and those in both developed and developing countries will be affected."

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