Fresh concerns over use of antibiotics in farming
“Our best defence is the water that surrounds us,” says Fanning. “If we’re going to preserve our status as a food island, then we need to up our game. We have a unique opportunity to have proper surveillance across all aspects of our food chain, and we should take it.”
In 2011, a new type of MRSA was discovered in two patients in Irish hospitals. This new strain belongs to a genetic lineage that was previously associated only with cows and other animals, but not humans.
That same year, UK scientists identified MRSA in cows with a near-identical profile to that of the Irish human MRSA. It’s clear that new strains of MRSA that can colonise humans are emerging from animal reservoirs in Ireland and Europe.
Public health challenge
So what do we know about the use of antibiotics on Irish farms? “That’s a good question,” says Fanning. “I wish I had an answer for you.”
The worrying fact is that we don’t know much. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine does not collect data on antibiotic usage on Irish farms. Available data from the global market research specialist, GFK Kynetec, shows that antibiotic sales for large animals in Ireland is increasing.
The World Health Organisation wants to ring-fence three classes of antibiotics they rate as “critically important to human medicine’” – cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and macrolides. Their concern is that worldwide, the use of these antibiotics on farms has increased eightfold in the last decade. In 2010, these classes of antibiotics represented 12 per cent of the total antibiotic use on Irish farms, according to the Irish Medicines Board, a 50 per cent increase on 2009 levels.
According to Dr Marc Sprenger, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, antibiotic resistance is “one of the most serious public health challenges we face”. Because we share antibiotics and dangerous bacteria with farm animals, is it time for the Irish authorities to follow the lead of countries such as like Denmark, where this information has been collected for years?
“Increased surveillance of antibiotic use is critical,” says Fanning. “We need to make sure that data from human consumption of antibiotics is available alongside data from antibiotic use on farms in Ireland. These drugs are the most important that we have for protecting us from infections.”
And if we don’t do this? “Then we will will have no drugs available for future generations.”
* Ella McSweeney is a radio and TV broadcaster, and presenter on RTÉ’s Ear to the Ground