Overuse of Antibiotics in Farming & Healthcare Creates Superbugs

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently warned of the increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria.  This means that common antibiotics we routinely use to treat small infections may soon be useless and could leave us in life-threatening situations.  Dearbhla Lenehan, a PhD research student and member of Transition Monaghan takes a look how this era of antibiotic resistant bacteria has come about.


There are many situations in which antibiotics are really important in combatting illness, but taking antibiotics when we don’t need them can be harmful and helps bacteria become resistant to them.  There are two main organisms that cause infections – viruses and bacteria.  Viruses cause illnesses more often than bacteria. Viruses cause colds, flus, sore throats and most coughs. Unfortunately, taking antibiotics for a viral infection  will not make you feel  better  and can help bacteria turn into                                                   superbugs.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Dearbhla Lenehan

Another reason for the emergence of these superbugs is not finishing a course of antibiotics. Antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria and when we take them, both good and bad bacteria in our bodies are killed.  When we start to feel better we might think there is no need to continue taking our medication.  This is not true.  The first antibiotic dose will kill off a lot of the infection causing bacteria, which is why you start to feel better, however, if you do not finish your antibiotic course, there are still some infection causing bacteria left in your system.  If they are not all killed off, it allows these surviving bacteria time to thrive once again by becoming resistant to the antibiotic that tried to kill them.

The overuse of antibiotics in the farming industry is a massive contributor to the emergence of these antimicrobial resistant bacteria strains.  Farm animals and poultry are routinely given antibiotics for prevention and treatment of disease.

In organic food production antibiotics are not used on the same scale as on non-organic farms. An organic farmer may only use antibiotics on animals in the interest of animal welfare and where other options have failed or are likely to fail. When an animal is treated with antibiotics on organic farm, that animal, or any derived food such as milk, meat or eggs, is not allowed to enter the human food chain for a defined withdrawal period following treatment. Perhaps we as consumers should whenever possible try to buy organic produce – the more of us who buy such produce the more farmers will convert to organic systems. In Co Monaghan there are only about 15 organic producers or processors listed as being certified or ‘in conversion’ to organics.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has warned that urgent control measures must be instated to reduce the number of farm animals and poultry being given antibiotics.  This comes as a recent report found that antimicrobial resistant bacteria are transmitted from farm animals into the food chain. How bacteria gain this resistance is through sharing genes with naturally occurring environmental microorganisms that have resistance genes normally. When exposed to low levels of antibiotics, in a bid to survive, bacteria can acquire these resistance genes from other species. This is how bacteria become antibiotic resistant allowing existing pathogens, to gain greater resistance and turn into ‘superbugs’.

The European Centre for Disease Control estimates around 25,000 deaths a year in the EU is caused by resistant bacteria. It is no wonder that bacteria become resistant to antibiotics when approximately 250,000 tonnes of antibiotics are used annually for medical and agricultural use.  In a bid to reduce the resistance evolution, the recent FSAI report concluded that we need to prevent infections on farms so drugs don’t have to be used and that surveillance along the food chain must be improved. WHO and the US Centers of Disease Control understand that we are entering a superbug era and have identified this as high priority research.  We too can help halt bacterial resistance by using antibiotics wisely both in healthcare and faming. The advice is not to dump unused antibiotics in drains or toilets but rather bring them to your local pharmacy for safe disposal.

While research on antibiotics and superbugs is ongoing, we all still need to take precautionary measures now to avert a situation emerging in which antibiotics are completely useless – and this could happen in the very near future.


Source: Food Safety Authority of Ireland

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