Antibiotic use in farm animals may add to superbug threat

There's a lot of concern about growth hormones and the fact that certain farmers supplement their livestock's diet with these substances in order for them to grow bigger at a faster rate.

But what about antibiotics?

It is believed that, apart from killing pathogens, supplementing farm animals' diet with antibiotics also leads to faster growth. The downside, however, is that it may add to a massive global problem – antimicrobial resistance.

Antimicrobial resistance in humans has been increasing at a rapid pace over the last few decades. Abuse and misuse of medication, like antibiotics, is a major contributor.

The misuse of antibiotics in humans could result in building up resistance to various medications, resulting in serious illness and subsequent death.

South African law

In South Africa, the law doesn't specifically address administering antibiotics to farm animals to encourage rapid growth, but the Medicines and Related Substances Act (Act 101 of 1965) deals with animal healthcare professionals being allowed to prescribe medication for animals to kill off harmful bacteria or to cure disease. 

The Fertilisers, Farm Feeds, Agricultural Remedies and Stock Remedies Act (Act 36 of 1947) addresses medication for livestock being obtainable over the counter for farmers to treat common diseases that their livestock may acquire.

Growth in market and product size

While in humans antibiotics are used to kill off harmful bacteria and restore health, in animals, including birds, the use of antibiotics also expedites growth.

In India, where people generally steer clear of red meat and pork, the market for poultry is substantial and continues to grow. It's believed that farmers are having trouble keeping up with the demand, and supplement their chicken feed with antibiotics to keep them disease-free and encourage growth.

The harm in doing this is that birds may end up carrying drug-resistant bacteria, which could be transferred to humans through contact, consumption or the environment.

The trouble with drug-resistant bacteria is that it is very difficult to kill these germs, regardless of what medication you take. This will remain a problem until doctors and scientists understand the inner workings of these organisms and how to outsmart them.

The problem is so severe that the World Health Organization (WHO) has launched a Global Action Plan to help countries around the world tackle the problem and try and minimise the damage that's already been done.

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