All health communities responsible for antibiotic use

Nov 23, 2012

The conversation on antibiotics in livestock and antibiotic resistance in bacteria continues. Concerns over misunderstanding and the need for cooperation were top of the list in the most recent antibiotic symposium.

The most recent installment of the National Institute of Animal Agriculture’s (NIAA) Antibiotic Use and Resistance dialog conferences took place Nov. 13-15 in Columbus, OH. The conference featured numerous academic speakers, interactive sessions, and antibiotic topics of pressing concern to the whole community of animal agriculture.

The conference, “A One Health Approach to Antimicrobial Use & Resistance: A Dialogue for a Common Purpose,” presented a clear message—antibiotic use and antimicrobial resistance are the responsibility of all communities. The human health, animal health and environmental health sectors all must be part of the conversation and solutions will require the collaboration, not finger-pointing, of these health communities.

The symposium covered a number of topics which are common refrains in the conversation regarding antibiotic use such as the value of judicious use of antimicrobials, the rampant misunderstanding of the connection between antibiotic use in food animals and antibiotic resistance in germs affecting humans, and the need to cooperate across broad ranges of health communities.

“Finding a solution is not about compromise; it’s about reaching agreement,” stated Dr. Lonnie King, dean of The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“We [animal health, human health and environmental health communities] need to focus on interests and not positions and initiate options for mutual gain. We need to find common ground—something we all can agree to when we disagree on other issues.”

One topic discussed at length was the disconnect between consumers and health officials—for both human and livestock—on what antibiotic resistance is and what plays a role in it.

This issue is complicated by the fact the problem of antimicrobial resistance is a heavily technical topic that is all too often rendered in black and white tones by media, critics and proponents alike. Additionally, the fact that it is an emotional and political issue, rather than simply a scientific issue, compounds the potential for misunderstanding and susceptibility to misinformation. Other problems—such as the public’s tendency to interpret “concern” to mean “risk”— were also brought up.

One of the less common topics brought up in the symposium was a historical perspective on antimicrobial resistance. Contrary to popular thought, antibiotic resistance in bacteria is nothing new and cannot be blamed on human or animal use of modern antibiotics.

It was pointed out in a presentation that it is in the nature of life forms to adapt to the pressures of their environment. Samples taken from prehistoric caves untouched by humans or animals for thousands of years have shown evidence of bacteria possessing antibiotic-resistant genes.

The growing public outcry over the use of antibiotics in food animals has had a problematic effect on veterinarians of food animals.

Public sentiment, and the political and regulatory attention it has been attracting lately, has drawn into conflict two of a veterinarian’s key oaths of responsibility, “prevention and relief of animal suffering,” and “promotion of public health.”

While the reality is that accomplishing the first does not necessarily jeopardize the latter, greater pressure is being put on veterinarians to subvert one oath for the other. That push, plus the reality that veterinarian-proscribed antibiotic use protocols are not always followed properly on the farm, has the potential to cause liability issues for veterinarians in the future.

Though this is a real possibility and some veterinarians have already begun changing their behavior because of it, the symposium stressed the need for shared responsibility and collaboration in moving forward on the issue of antibiotics in food animals and antimicrobial resistance.

“Antimicrobial resistance is not merely a consequence of use; it’s a consequence of use and misuse, and each community—animal health, human health or environmental health—is responsible for antibiotic stewardship,” read an NIAA release on the topic.

The most recent symposium was one of a themed line of NIAA conferences. The next of NIAA’s conferences will be its annual conference—Animal Agriculture’s Vision to Feed the World: Merging Values & Technology—and will be held April 15-18, 2013, in Louisville, KY. For more information, visit the NIAA website at — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor