The recent findings of MRSA in British retail pork are extremely worrying. The study, commissioned by the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, indicates that MRSA is likely to be well established within the UK pig herd. What's more, it is getting into our supermarket meat - indicating that consumers are already being exposed to MRSA bacteria without their knowledge.
This is the first time MRSA of livestock origin has been found in British pig meat. The findings add to the growing evidence that overuse of antibiotics in farming is contributing to resistance in life-threatening infections in humans, and supports the call for urgent action to address inappropriate use in farming.
MRSA (often referred to as a superbug) has developed resistance to many types of antibiotics, meaning that the infections it can cause - such as blood poisoning and pneumonia - resist usual drug treatment and pose an increased risk to health.
But despite growing awareness of human resistance and the link to farm use, there has been a surprising lack of action to explore this risk further. Whilst most EU countries have carried out their own national surveys to directly test pigs, the UK has for years declined to carry out national monitoring of pigs, (with the exception of an EU survey in 2008, which tested dust samples on pig farms). Lack of testing means lack of data; meaning that the spread of resistant bacteria may be more rampant than we realise. When it comes to livestock-associated MRSA, the latest findings indicate that this is indeed the case.
Antibiotic resistance - when the drugs don't work - is a problem now widely recognised by senior medical experts as a huge potential threat to our health. The UK's Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies has warned that human resistance threatens to undermine the effectiveness of modern medicine, meaning that routine procedures or operations could become dangerous or even impossible.
In the UK, about 45% of antibiotics are used in animals; often routinely and preventatively, even when no disease has been diagnosed in any of the animals being treated. Antibiotics are used as an insurance policy against disease (often in the intensive farming sector where conditions are typically over-crowded and disease outbreaks are harder to control). Farm use of antibiotics deemed 'critically important' for human use has increased by 35% over the last four years despite reductions in human medicine.
Routine, low-level antibiotic use is known to encourage the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which can then be passed on to humans through direct contact with animals, the environment, or through consumption of animal products. Thanks to the recent findings, we now know that there is a risk of livestock-associated MRSA being passed to humans through supermarket pork.
Strains of MRSA have emerged in farms animals across Europe in recent years. The spread is believed by scientists to be associated with farm antibiotic use, and linked most strongly with increased use of 'critically important' drugs known as the modern cephalosporins. If left unchecked, the spread of MRSA could cause very real problems. This is exemplified in the Netherlands, where, a few years ago, the type of MRSA found in UK retail pork caused 42% of human cases.
But solutions are available, once again exemplified by looking to other European countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, where ambitious targets have been taken to cut antibiotic use on farms. In The Netherlands, farm use of some critically important antibiotics has been cut by 98%, and human cases of MRSA are now falling.
Similar action must now be taken in the UK. Routine, preventative use of antibiotics in farming must stop. Use of critically important antibiotics in farming must be cut dramatically. We must look at our farming systems and ask ourselves if they are optimising animal health and welfare through good husbandry and hygiene practices. And we need more information on the amount and type of drugs that are prescribed to each farm animal species.
The Government's 5 year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy represents a shift in the right direction, but falls well short of introducing the limits and targets called for by organisations like the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics. The Government must follow the example of The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden (who imposed policies to reduce farm antibiotic use despite not having nationally collected prescription data at the time), and take real leadership on this issue.
With experts warning of one million deaths across Europe by 2025, we do not have the benefit of time. Let's hope that the findings of this study - worrying though they are - will help to kick-start the policy action that we need to protect our drugs and our health, both now and in the future.