Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have revolutionised modern medicine and saved millions of lives.
But the systematic overuse of antibiotics in human and animal medicine is undermining their ability to cure life-threatening infections in people, by creating an army of dangerous bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics. Experts predict that 10 million people a year could die from antibiotic resistant infections by 2050.
Despite this, huge amounts of antibiotics continue to be used in farming. Farm animals account for almost two thirds of all antibiotics used in 26 European countries, and around 30% of all antibiotics used in the UK.
It is legal in the EU to routinely mass-medicate whole groups of animals, even when no disease has been diagnosed in any of the animals. Antibiotics are often given to healthy animals (particularly pigs and poultry) to compensate for low-welfare, cramped conditions where disease outbreaks are common and harder to control.
Livestock may even be given antibiotics classed as ‘critically important’ for people. The emergence of resistance to colistin - a ‘last-resort’ antibiotic for people - has shone the spotlight on how deeply dangerous our antibiotic addition is. Human resistance to colistin has emerged from the overuse of the drug in farming, and represents a breach of our last line of defence against disease.
Systematic overuse of antibiotics in farming must stop. We are in danger of losing these remarkable assets, and with them the ability to protect our health. This is no longer a prediction for the future. If we are to save our antibiotics, we must act fast.
It is time for urgent action on a scale appropriate to the magnitude of this crisis. Governments across the EU must ban the routine dosing of groups of healthy animals, and dramatically cut farm use of the ‘critically important’ drugs. The UK must now prepare to take ambitious unilateral action on this issue.
We must also tackle the systemic problems at the heart of unhealthy farming systems. Animals should be kept disease-free through good hygiene, housing and welfare, not through routine antibiotic use.