The European Medicines Agency is currently running an important public consultation on how best to assess the risks of antimicrobial resistance passing from food animals to human. The consultation is open until 31st August.

Draft guidelines have been prepared which are designed to help regulators assess the risks associated with individual antimicrobials when they are licensed or their licenses are reviewed.

The agency states that although food has always been regarded as an important route through which humans may be exposed to antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, there is now increasing concern about the risk of exposure through direct contact with livestock as well. The paper acknowledges that the consequences of resistance spreading in this way include loss of treatment options, human illness and death.

The initiative, while welcome, has some significant weaknesses however. Spread of antimicrobial resistance through the environment, something identified in a large number of studies, falls outside the terms of reference, as does off-label or unauthorised use.

The SFT recognises that it is difficult to assess the risks associated with unauthorised use. However, since veterinary surgeons are legally permitted in certain circumstances to prescribe antimicrobials for uses for which they have not been approved, our view is that off-label use should be included within this assessment. We will be setting out our views in a response and welcome input or comments from farmers, veterinary surgeons and other interested parties.

Despite its shortcomings we welcome this initiative since the more information vets and farmers have about the impact of individual antibiotics on resistance, the more informed the choice they will be able to make.

The Cure – Antibiotic resistance: The end of modern medicine?

Al Jazeera’s excellent short documentary maps the critical issues in the rise of antibiotic resistance. The world is watching as a range of dangerous bugs – tuberculosis, gonnorhoea, e. coli, MRSA and other infections – are developing multi-drug antibiotic resistance. The spread of resistance could well create a world where antibiotics are ineffective against even minor infections, turning the clock back on medicine over seventy years.

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics is at the root of the problem and one of its roots lies in its widespread prophylactic use in intensive farming. Some 63,000 tons of antibiotics are used on farm animals globally every year. The SFT’s policy director Richard Young, a long-time campaigner against the misuse of antibiotics in farming, is interviewed on the subject for the film. He highlights the true cost of our cheap meat which may be paid for through a bacterial infection garnered from a resistant strain that has transferred to humans from farm animals.

In the development of resistance, when antibiotics are overused or misused, sensitive bacteria are killed but resistant strains remain to ‘thrive and multiply.’ There are now a number of strains of ‘Extensively Drug Resistant’ bacteria, where few if any treatment options remain and this problem is growing worldwide. The search is on for new antibiotics, but finding new antibiotic substances which kill bacteria but don’t harm us is getting harder and harder. The film follows a team of scientists going deep underground in search of new molecules; scientists are looking in more and more extreme environments to find undiscovered new life. Will they succeed in time? With ten million people a year projected to die from resistant infections by 2050, the future coud be bleak.

Photograph: David Oliver

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