The rise in human resistance to antibiotics has prompted a major study to establish when and why sheep farmers use the drugs, in a bid to reduce dependency in agriculture.
Public health authorities worldwide have recognised an urgent need to reduce the use of antibiotics for both humans and animals to protect against illness-causing bacteria evolving and reducing the drugs’ effectiveness.
Resistance to antibiotics - or antimicrobial resistance, as it is known - is predicted to get worse. A report to the Government led by economist Jim O’Neill published earlier this year suggested that antimicrobial resistance could cause the death of 10 million people a year by 2050 and led to the Government’s chief medical officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, saying that “a simple cut to your finger could leave you fighting for your life”.
One of the report’s recommendations was to reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics in agriculture and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has set targets to do so in livestock and fish farmed for food by 2018.
Defra has committed to an average UK-wide cross-sector target which will aim to reduce usage by 19 per cent over a four-year period.
Farming groups have responded to the call for action and a survey has just been completed by the National Sheep Association of more than 350 farmers across the country to ascertain trends in antibiotic use in the sheep sector.
Phil Stocker, the association’s chief executive, said: “The sheep sector is taking antimicrobial use very seriously. We need to play our part in ensuring these medicines continue to be available and effective for both our human and animal populations. To focus our efforts, we need to understand why and when farmers are choosing to use antibiotics, so we can steer future work towards increasing vaccination for some conditions and finding alternative solutions to others.”
To help the industry hit the government’s target, the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA) is helping individual sectors identify specific objectives and ensure more responsible use.
Veterinary services company MSD Animal Health said it was working with sheep producers to help them understand the flock productivity benefits of preventative healthcare in a bid to reduce infections from developing in the first place.
John Atkinson, technical manager at MSD Animal Health, said: “The continued focus on reducing the use of antibiotics in farmed livestock means it is vital that the whole UK sheep industry embraces active flock health planning.”
The Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers said the farming industry must take a proactive lead to beat antimicrobial resistance and a recent survey of dairy farmers provides encouragement. The industry body’s study found that most dairy farmers think they can cut their own antibiotic use by almost a third in dry cow therapy and a fifth in clinical mastitis over the next five years.
However, human use of antibiotics is higher than animal use. Responding to the O’Neill report, Sean Wensley, president of the British Veterinary Association, said: “The reduced use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is just one piece of the jigsaw.”