The discovery of antibiotics and its widespread manufacture has undoubtedly changed the face of medicine in the 21st century. All thanks to Alexander Fleming’s cast aside Petri dish, where the first discovery of penicillin was made. The use of antibiotics has become so widespread that nearly all of us have taken some in our lives. Yet there is the increasing threat of antibiotic resistance. Pressuring us as a society to review and change the way we use these drugs. 

The importance of antibiotics in human and animal health

If ever you’ve gone to the doctor’s for a bad wound or perhaps a more sinister wisdom tooth infection, chances are you were given a couple days’ worth of antibiotics; just to help clear the bacteria in the area. Antibiotics are an integral part of medicine (both human and animals alike). Without them, people could die from something as small as a cut or simple surgical procedure!

Aside from treating basic bacterial infections, antibiotics are also often the main treatment for more serious conditions such as tuberculosis. We don’t have many choices of antibiotics when it comes to many of these diseases. In many cases we’re down to the last small handful of antibiotics which the bacteria haven’t yet shown resistance to, making it more important than ever to safeguard these drugs!

The growing issue of antibiotic resistance

Antibiotics truly are a wonder. It seems easy enough to just dispense a couple of them, take the pills, then kill whatever bacteria you’re wanting to get rid of. Except it’s not quite that simple. Bacteria are (to their credit) a bit more complex and resilient than that, with an incredible ability to adapt quickly. 

Each population of bacteria will have a variety of genetics and different levels of susceptibility to antibiotics. Think of each antibiotic use as an elimination game for this population. Most of the bacteria will be susceptible to the drug and be killed. But there will be a small number which are resistant to the antibiotic and survive. The antibiotic-resistant bacteria are then able to multiply and go on to form more colonies, entirely made up of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (also known as ‘superbugs’). These resistant bacteria can no longer be killed by those antibiotics.

Incorrect use of antibiotics, such as overuse or misuse, will lead to the development of antibiotic resistance. The more times we play this ‘elimination game’ with the bacteria through use of antibiotics, the more antibiotic-resistant bacteria survive and start to become the main drivers of disease, until we find ourselves unable to control them with any antibiotics!

The vet, the animal, and antibiotics

The veterinary industry, particularly the farming sector, had previously been under public scrutiny for its use of antibiotics. Specifically, the use of antibiotics as a ‘growth promoter’ in food producing animals, where the drug is given at low or sub-therapeutic levels in order to produce faster growing animals. This has been banned in the UK and EU since 2006, over concerns of this practice potentially encouraging mass numbers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to arise.

Fast forward over a decade later, and the UK now uses a relatively small amount of antibiotics compared to other EU countries. With a continuing decline in their use, according to the 2021 report by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD). Thanks to continued efforts and cooperation between the veterinary profession and farming industry, strides have been made towards improvement of herd/flock health as well as rigorous use of antibiotics. In turn drastically decreasing the need to use these precious medicines. 

The impact of responsible antibiotic use

The effort which the veterinary profession and food producing sector have put into reducing antibiotic use will undoubtedly have started to make an impact. Surveillance studies carried out by the VMD have shown a steady decline in the types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria isolated from food producing animals. This is great news (which we can be cautiously optimistic about!). Because it means that antibiotics will retain their efficacy against these bacteria. And we can continue to reliably treat the conditions they cause. 

The future of antibiotics  

The UK veterinary profession and food producing sector has proven its ability to lead the way in sustainable and responsible antibiotic use. The battle with antibiotic resistance, however, is far from over. The first steps have been paved. But commitment and action from across our community, including human doctors, policy makers and pharmacists will be critical as well.

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