Farmers have long supplemented animal feed with antibiotics to fight disease and make their animals fatter and more profitable.
But the discovery of a powerful antibiotic designed to fight the world’s most virulent illnesses in chicken farms throughout India and other countries has disturbed some public health experts. They say the excessive use of such drugs can hasten the development of antibiotic-resistant infections, often called superbugs.
Thousands of tons of colistin, known as the “antibiotic of last resort” or the “last hope” for humans experiencing illnesses like pneumonia, is pumped into chicken feed throughout the developing world, according to a report released thsi week by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
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“Colistin is the last line of defense,” United Nations Advisor Timothy Walsh, an expert on antimicrobial resistance, told TBIJ. “It is the only drug we have left to treat critically ill patients with a [multi-drug resistant] infection. Giving it to chickens as feed is crazy.”
Walsh said drug-resistant bacteria and viruses will quickly advance beyond chicken farms by contaminating meat, latching onto farm workers, and spreading through animal feces.
According to WHO, multidrug resistant bacteria are particularly dangerous in hospitals, nursing homes, and other settings where vulnerable individuals receive treatment, like blood catheters and ventilators, that introduce outside substances into their bodies.
In the US, at least 2 million people each year become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria and at least 23,000 people die from these infections, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
In 2016, nearly 500,000 people around the world developed multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, WHO reports, and drug-resistant microbes have begun to undermine HIV and malaria medication as well.
Researchers predict such bacteria will kill 10 million worldwide by 2050, unless drastic steps are taken to reduce unnecessary use of vital medications.
Colistin, an old antibiotic that can cause complications like kidney damage, has fallen out of use except in certain cases where no other antibiotic works to fight infection. Agriculture corporations purchased the cheap and abundant supply of colistin and gave it to farmers in developing regions of China, India, Vietnam, and other countries, according to the report.
In India, meat from these chickens ends up at fast food restaurants like KFC and McDonald’s, which have both set timelines for ending the use of “critically important antibiotics” in the US and Europe, but not in India.
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Around the world, scientists work to develop new antibiotics and preserve effective ones as microbes mutate and become drug-resistant. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a “priority list” of superbugs that continue to develop drug resistance and described the perpetual race against disease-causing microbes that mutate and become impervious to existing antibiotics.
The responsible use of antibiotics is one way to keep superbugs in check.
“Colistin should only be used on very sick patients,” Walsh said. “It should be thought of and treated as an environmental toxin. It should be labelled as such. It should not be exported all over the world to be used in chicken feed."