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Once a blessing, today a curse?

Workshop on risks and minimisation strategies for the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry

Multi-resistant germs have been spreading for years. There are multiple reasons for this. However it is now undisputed that the use of antibiotics in farm animals has meant that in addition to human medicine, food and contact with diseased animals or infected animals in the course of work has provided additional sources of potential transmissions of multi-resistant pathogens to human beings.

On June 21, in the university club of Bonn around 100 experts, including numerous veterinary surgeons, farmers and scientists, discussed the “Use of antibiotics in animal husbandry”. The debate focussed on the current risk evaluation in resistance dynamism at different levels (stable, environment, hospital, etc.) as well as approaches for sustainable avoidance strategies. The organiser of the workshop was the teaching and research faculty “Umweltverträgliche und Standortgerechte Landwirtschaft” (Environmentally-compatible and location-oriented agriculture) of the University of Bonn together with the Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment, Agriculture, Nature Conservation and Consumer Protection (MKULNV) of the Land North Rhine-Westphalia and GIQS e.V. (cross-border integrated quality assurance).

It had been thought that the unnecessary and excessive administration of antibiotics in animal husbandry had already been suitably confronted by appropriate regulations which were introduced in legislation in the 1990s. Peter Knitsch, head of the department of consumer protection at the MKLUNV, said he was therefore all the more astonished about the extent to which antibiotics are still used today. He cited the example of a study published in 2011, which established that around 90% of fattened chicken are in any case given antibiotics on an average of 7.6 days of their short lives. And this involves up to eight different types of antibiotics. At the same time it has become evident that significantly fewer antibiotics are used in smaller farms with longer fattening periods. With regard to this issue Knitsch pointed out that the ministry, confirmed by the Conference of Agricultural Ministers, had urged that there should be an amendment to the respective legislation. This calls for the drafting of a concept for minimising the use of antibiotics, the legally binding introduction of a publically accessible official database hosted by the pertinent authorities and a legally binding guideline/directive for the use of antibiotics and the result-oriented investigation into the dispensing rights of veterinary surgeons.

Dr. Annemarie Käsbohrer from the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) explained that in order to create the basis for such a minimisation concept the BfR has commissioned a study to determine what active ingredients with what indication are used particularly frequently over what period of time, in order to be able to use this information to ultimately draw conclusions about the development of bacterial resistances against the active ingredients which are used. From the point of view of consumer health protection not only the husbandry conditions for the farm animals have to be improved but also the farm management and the farm hygiene. She added that additional possibilities were the strengthening of protection against infections through immunisations and breeding measures, to make the animals more robust.

While the BfR examines threshold values from an epidemiological perspective, for doctors of human medicine the antibiotics problem has long since become “simpler”. “We only examine the four most important antibiotics when we are talking about multi-resistant germs”, explained Dr. med. Peter Walger from the University of Bonn in his lecture. He noted that a worrying trend was that, in contrast to MRSA pathogens which could be controlled better through appropriate consistent hygienic measures, multi resistant gram-negative pathogens such as EBSL were quickly spreading and no adequate pharmacological solution had yet been found to combat them.

Depending on the type of farm animal the extent of incorrect use or excessive dosing of antibiotics varied, as well as the active substances administered. With regard to this issue, Prof. Dr. Walther Honscha from the Veterinary Medicine Faculty at the University of Leipzig explained the results of a feasibility study on an antibiotics database, which is being developed within the framework of a project commissioned by the BfR. It involves a database-aided recording system for the use of antimicrobial active substances for farm animals. Honscha argued that the concept was implementable.

The workshop made it clear that many questions regarding new methods of risk assessment and for evaluating minimisation strategies in the sense of a system innovation have remained unresolved and show the urgent need for research, which in future will be increasingly tackled from Bonn within the framework of international community research and network projects. There is an urgent need to take action, because the interface between the environment, farm animal and food production, population and health system is also developing into a new problem area in the debate on targets of strategies against the further spread of antibiotic resistances such as the global evolution bacterial resistances independent of antibiotic selection.

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