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Toolbox  –  Rational use

Food animals

In the Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance, Member States are urged to take action to optimize the use of antibiotics. For the animal sector, this includes phasing out use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion and to reduce routine use of antibiotics.

What is rational use of antibiotics?

Rational use means to limit antibiotic use to when it is needed, and to use antibiotics appropriately. Rational use of antibiotics is not equal to decreasing use. Treatment with antibiotics is necessary for certain diseases in animals, in order to ensure survival, welfare, productivity, and reduced spread of disease.

Livestock keeping is fundamental for livelihoods, economy and food and nutrition security, and this could be threatened if animal diseases are not treated when needed. To achieve sustainable use of antibiotics in the food animal sector several different factors must be taken into account like animal health, sustainability of production, availability of veterinary medicines such as antibiotics and vaccines, and socio-economic factors.

Mahidol University interviewed Dr. Anthony D So from ReAct about antimicrobial resistance, and the use of antibiotics in farm animals. He also shares his suggestions on potential target areas in the supply chain.

Healthier animals need less antibiotics

It is common to give antibiotics to whole groups of animals routinely for growth promotion or to prevent or control disease outbreaks. In many cases routine use of antibiotics can be prevented by improving animal husbandry practices. For example, improved biosecurity can lead to fewer group treatments and less antibiotic use in pig herds. The long-term goal of rational use efforts should be to promote a transition to farming systems where routine use of antibiotics is not needed.

Large variation between countries

Sales of antibiotics for group treatment varied from 5% to more than 90% of total antibiotic sales for animals in different European countries in 2016. In other words, there is a large potential for improvement in many countries.

Barriers to rational use

The use of antibiotics in food animal production creates a legitimate conflict of interest. On the one hand, farmers must make a living, and may perceive that routine antibiotic use is necessary for production. One the other hand, global reduction of antibiotic use is needed to limit antibiotic resistance. Farmers may hesitate to be more selective in their use of antibiotics due to fears of more disease and loss of productivity. In some cases, farmers are unaware that they are feeding their animals antibiotics.

In many countries, selling antibiotics is an important part of the income for animal health workers and pharmacists, and therefore there are weak incentives to discourage use. Similarly, animal health workers may be reluctant to not give antibiotics if there is a risk that the farmers will be dissatisfied. Furthermore, when the pharmaceutical market is unregulated with no requirements for prescriptions, costs or unavailability of veterinary advice may push farmers to use antibiotics.

Selected Resources

Resource Description
WHO guidelines on use of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals Recommendations from WHO on antibiotic use in animals: Discusses current evidence base and urges farmers and the food industry to stop using antibiotics routinely to promote growth and prevent disease in healthy animals.
Drivers, Dynamics and Epidemiology of Antimicrobial Resistance in Animal Production (PDF 1,5MB) Report that explains and discusses the development and spread of antimicrobial resistance and its relations with food production.
Antimicrobial Use in Livestock in Low-Income Countries Policy brief discussing antimicrobial use and resistance in livestock in low-income countries.
Antibiotic resistance: mitigation opportunities in livestock sector development Opinion paper on rational use of antibiotics and the importance of good animal husbandry to counteract antibiotic resistance.
Addressing Antimicrobial Resistance: An Overview of Priority Actions to Prevent Suboptimal Antimicrobial Use in Food-Animal Production Review that provides an overview of factors influencing farmers’ decision making and proposes priority actions against misuse of antibiotics.