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UK report warns against growing use of antibiotics for livestock

Using drugs that are crucial to humans in livestock could claim 10 million lives each year by 2050.

Antibiotics used to treat and prevent disease in livestock are increasing the risk of drug-resistant strains being passed on to humans by animals, a report by former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill has found.

The UK-government-commissioned report Antimicrobials in agriculture and the environment – Reducing unnecessary use and waste says that use of antibiotics in livestock should be cut back, adding that use of last-resort drugs for livestock is a particular danger:

“Last-resort antibiotics for humans are being used extensively in animals, with no replacements as of yet on the way,” the report warns, adding that most antibiotics used in animals are medically important for humans.

Calling the use of last-resort antibiotics a “huge threat,” the report refers to a recent Chinese finding of a bacterial gene resistant to last-resort antibiotic colistin, a drug used to treat infections in cystic fibrosis and meningitis patients. While the gene, which could spread quickly, was found in 20 percent of animals in the infected area and only found in 1 percent of people.

Antibiotic-resistant strains could be passed on to farmers through contact, or to consumers handling or cooking infected meat.  The report is part of a government-commissioned review into antimicrobial resistance. It warned last year that “drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis
(TB), malaria, HIV and certain bacterial infections could by 2050 be claiming 10 million lives each year,” at a cost of $100 trillion.

The report is critical of the widespread use of antibiotics in intensive farming to prevent disease and encourage weight gain in animals. Out of 41 antibiotics approved for use in livestock in the US, 31 are categorised as being medically important for human use.

The report recommends that amounts of antibiotic used in livestock should be measured and reduced over the next ten years, with each country setting its own targets. However, it also says that countries should come together to restrict or ban the use of antibiotics that are important to humans, and that how antibiotics are used – such as for helping animals grow and put on weight – should be reconsidered.