Antibiotics to grow farm animals raise superbug risk

A probe by The Hindu and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism finds a veterinary drug producer promoting their misuse in poultry farming
The world’s biggest animal drugs company has been accused of double standards and of exposing consumers in India to “higher levels of risk” by selling antibiotics for purposes now banned in Europe and the U.S. Zoetis, the largest producer of veterinary medicines, is supplying Indian farmers with antibiotics to help their animals grow faster. The practice should be banned worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), because it increases the prevalence of resistant bacteria that can infect humans and cause deadly and untreatable infections. The company stopped advertising antibiotics as growth promoters to American farmers almost two years ago. Zoetis publicly supported new laws in the U.S. banning this abuse of antibiotics as part of its “continued commitment to antibiotic stewardship”. However, Zoetis continues to sell antibiotics directly to Indian farmers with claims on the company’s Indian website that they will make animals grow bigger and faster. This is not currently against Indian law although the government has called for it to end and Maharastra banned the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in agriculture after a Hindu/Bureau of Investigative Journalism report earlier this year. Abdul Ghafur, a professor in infectious diseases who brought together medical societies and the Indian government in 2012 to create a plan to tackle antibiotic resistance, known as the Chennai Declaration, said Zoetis is adopting “double standards”. “If an American company follows one policy in America, they should follow the same policy in India,” he added.
Zoetis faces a dwindling market in U.S. since the ban last year for these products but expects that increased sales elsewhere will more than compensate in the future. Speaking to investment analysts in February, Zoetis CFO Glenn David said, despite the downturn in the U.S., he still expects to see sales of medicated feed additives rise “as the emerging markets become more industrialised”. Animals reared for meat in the major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are expected to consume double the amount of antibiotics in 2030 than they did in 2010. Responding to the Bureau’s findings, Zoetis said: “Each country enacts regulations appropriate for their market needs and standards, and we work with the national regulatory authorities in various countries, including India, to understand, respect and comply with local regulatory interpretation and oversight.” Experts are particularly concerned about the widespread use of a ‘last hope’ antibiotic on Indian poultry farms. Colistin is often used to treat seriously ill people with infections that have become resistant to almost all other drugs and is deemed one of the “highest priority, critically important” antibiotics by WHO as it is so crucial to human medicine. Although none of Zoetis’ growth promoters contain colistin, a number of major Indian poultry companies have been found to use the drug, spreading fears about how much longer one of our last lines of defence against highly resistant infections will be effective. Fears about growing resistance to a drug crucially important to human health has led some to call for an outright ban of colistin use on farms. The discovery of a colistin-resistant gene that can pass between bacteria, conferring resistance to bugs never exposed to the drug, sent shockwaves through the medical community in 2015. This transfer will likely accelerate the spread of resistance to colistin, further boosted by the rampant use of the antibiotic on farms in many countries. Timothy Walsh, a professor at Cardiff University who made the discovery in 2015, called for a worldwide ban on colistin use in agriculture.
“I’ll be OK, but my children and my children’s children are seriously going to grow up in a world where we have no viable antibiotics because of unrivalled stupidity” he said. But growth promoting antibiotics, including colistin, remain widely available to Indian farmers through a number of international and domestic pharmaceutical companies. Mr. Walsh said: “I predict that colistin as a drug will be dead in 10 years time. And given what is in the pipeline, which is next to nothing, and given the plasticity of bacteria and their ability to evolve and adapt and survive and prosper, I see no good end to this story at all.”
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