On Tuesday 22 December, the UK government confirmed three isolated cases of pigs resistant to the antibiotic colistin have been discovered on farms in England and Wales. The drug is used to treat E.coli infections in livestock and humans.
The discovery heralds a potential era of untreatable infections for livestock and humans, which newspaper reports have described as an “antibiotics apocalypse”. But a government spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) said this analysis was “premature”.
Concerns were raised in November 2015, when the colistin resistant gene mcr-1 was detected in pigs in China, the Lancet Infectious Diseases (LID) reported. Scientists who conducted the LID report, said they feared the gene could spread from farm animals to humans as the antibiotic is more widely used in veterinary medicine than human treatment.
And in the weeks since the report was published, the gene has been found in Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and in several Asian and African countries.
EU antibiotic use
Antibiotic use in the EU is around 500 times higher in farm animals than the amount used in humans, according to a study by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). Around 545 tonnes (t) was used on livestock in 2014. Spain (177t) and Italy (133t) used the most antibiotics of any EU state.
Only five member states used less antibiotics in 2014 than the UK, according to Defra.
A Freedom of Information request from the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics revealed 837kg of colistin was sold for use on British farm animals in 2014.
“Despite scientists saying that resistance to this last-resort antibiotic is likely to be spreading from farm animals to humans, it still remains completely legal in the UK and in most EU countries to routinely feed colistin to large groups of intensively farmed animals, even when no disease has been diagnosed in any of the animals,” said Cóilín Nunan, scientific adviser to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics.
Separately, a spokesman for Defra confirmed the government will “increase surveillance” across the UK to stem the threat of the mcr-1 gene from spreading. The spokesman also confirmed Defra will be “working to reduce colistin use” in the UK by working with vets and British farmers to “raise awareness”.