Campaigners have sounded the alarm over levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are in rivers in England and Wales from factory farming. Results from a lab test have indicated that medicine use on intensive farms could threaten a big spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which could make it more difficult to treat infections. AMR represents a significant threat to public health as it involves “superbug” bacteria evolving to develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them.
In a test commissioned by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), Fera Science and the campaigner group Alliance to Save our Antibiotics took 48 water and sediment samples from rivers near 12 pig and poultry farms in the Wye Valley and southeast Norfolk, finding evidence of antibiotic-resistant E.Coli and Staphylococcus aureus across the sites.
These microbes have been responsible for some of the highest human infections and deaths associated with antibiotic resistance. Testing showed stronger signs of resistance downstream rather than upstream, with five of eight of the intensive poultry and pig farms located further downstream. This could suggest that antibiotics were used at these locations. But testing from four free-range and organic farms showed no difference upstream or downstream.
Cóilín Nunan, scientific adviser to the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, which is organic farming and animal welfare organisations, said: “There does seem to be a lot of resistance, which is of relevance to human health in the environment near these farms. This is definitely going to help the spread of resistance back to humans and animals.”
Mr Nunan also warned that he saw swimmers at one of the tested sites, a concern as these people could swallow the water and get a bacterial infection that may not be able to be treated with antibiotics.
Angela Jones has been swimming, working on and exploring the River Wye for a number of years and said she had seen parts of the river turn “cloudy and foul”, leaving the water with her eyes stinging.
She told the Burea of Investigative Journalism: “I feel like crying but I knew two years ago we were close to the edge. And I know now it’s not changed … [Poultry farms are] still chucking all that manure. We need something drastic.”
While UK sales of antibiotics used on farms have fallen by 55 percent since 2014, last year reaching their lowest levels on record, Mr Nunan has called for a ban on the preventative use of antibiotics (before animals show signs of illness).
MPs have also recently warned that Britain’s rivers are “in a mess”, and could become “breeding grounds” for antimicrobial resistance (AMR). But AMR is something that has been a concern for several years.
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Back in 2019, the Government published a ‘20-year Vision’ on AMR, laying out a plan to effectively contain and control AMR and a five-year National Action Plan to tackle AMR “within and beyond our own borders, to ensure progress towards the Vision”.
It came three years after a Government review on AMR estimated that superbugs kill at least 700,000 people around the world every year, which could reach 10 million extra deaths by 2050 if appropriate action is not taken.
And data published on Monday revealed that there were almost 150 daily severe antibiotic-resistant infections in England last year.
The UK Health Security Agency has warned that anti-bacterial resistance is even occurring against the newest antibiotics, representing a huge risk to public health and could make illnesses harder to treat.
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One of the most worrying finds from the latest study was the presence of E coli, which is resistant to cefotaxim and S aureus resistant to vancomycin. The World Health Organization classes both these drugs as being critically important in human medicine.
According to the BIJ, the pollution of water with antibiotic residues could make the development and spread of superbugs more likely because there are already bacteria in the water which can develop resistance.
But there are currently laws that are designed to stop the spread of antibiotic resistance through farm waste disposal. Regulators instead have to rely on farmers to simply follow guidance and codes of practice. According to campaigners, the lack of official controls threatens to facilitate the spread of antibiotic-resistant diseases.
James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, said: It is scandalous for the industry to continue this practice of diseased poultry waste to be spread on farmland. We are increasing the risk of AMR being spread when we could just as easily stop this practice.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We do not support routine preventative use of antibiotics in animals – they should not compensate for poor husbandry practices and we will continue to look into strengthening legislation in this area.”