Antibiotics are crucial in human and animal health and yet growing levels of resistance to these drugs pose an increasingly serious threat to public health. One of the key contributing factors to such antimicrobial resistance is irresponsible use of antibiotics in the livestock sector.
AgriProFocus is a multi-stakeholder network with Dutch roots that promotes farmer entrepreneurship as a contribution to food and nutrition security in developing countries. Food quality is a growing concern in many of these countries. But the awareness of the threat of antibiotic resistance is still low.
Need for upscaling proper advice and monitoring
Dairy professionals in our African network report a number of issues. Antibiotics are easily available at drugstores without a clear description of ingredients and recommended use. Without veterinary advice, farmers may apply inappropriate drugs or under-dose their animals to save money. In other cases, veterinarians advised the preventive use of antibiotics.
Farmers may also fail to observe the withdrawal period: the period of time required before an animal being treated can be used for milk or meat. Furthermore, there are reports that informal traders are applying antibiotics to avoid milk turning sour during transport. Legislation on the use of antibiotics may be in place, but the problem lies mostly in the enforcement and monitoring of drug use.
Building capacity and knowledge around alternatives and consequences
Two years ago, AgriProFocus and Dutch Farm Experience co-organised a workshop and farm visits on the issue of antibiotics in Uganda. In his keynote address, Professor Samuel Majajija from Makerere University recognized the issues mentioned. He said farmers were “spoiled” with almost 200 brands of antibiotics on the market. Meanwhile, he indicated a general lack of awareness among producers and consumers about the risks of misusing antibiotics and other veterinary drugs.
A farm visit near Rushere, Uganda also focused on antibiotics use but revealed similar problems of growing resistance to the acaricides. Native Ankole dairy cows are routinely sprayed with this substance to control ticks, which carry East Coast Fever, a parasitic disease that can be fatal. A study by Ocaido, et al. 2009b revealed that in Uganda, ticks and tick borne diseases accounted for 75.4 per cent of losses in cattle while the costs for control constituted 85 per cent of the total disease control costs in cattle (Ocaido et al., 2009a).
In 2016, AgriProFocus, PUM and local partners trained farmers and other professionals in the poultry sector in Tanzania. In our poultry learning lab methodology, we use morning farm visits and afternoon classes.
In our first visit to a small poultry farm, we found that young chicks were given routine treatment of various drugs. Like many other livestock farmers, the poultry keeper just followed earlier advice from a veterinarian. He was not aware of other preventative measures that can help keep chicks healthy, such as clean water and feed, fresh air, and clean litter.
The poultry learning labs turned into a practical demonstration about the biggest risk of spreading disease: health problems for the farmers themselves.
The experts emphasized bio-security control and simple, routine measures that can minimize risk. In this case, farmers wore overshoes and were not admitted to the barns.
In another visit, we were shown underweight day-old-chicks. The farmer explained that it was difficult to complain about this, as the suppliers of the chicks had a near monopoly. The veterinary advice in this case was to give them drugs to kick-start growth.
Reform is possible
The growing resistance to antibiotics is a complex problem, as many stakeholders need to change their way of doing business. The Dutch livestock sector has shown that this is possible.
In 2009, the Dutch ministry of agriculture banned the preventative use of antibiotics and launched a campaign for an overall reduction of 20 per cent in the first year and 50 per cent within three years.
The outcome was remarkable, and in 2014, antibiotics sales to livestock farms had dropped by 58 per cent, while production efficiency and financial returns had not been affected. Improved hygiene practices are among the first measures to be adopted. Interestingly, the Dutch see room for yet further overall reduction if the farms and vets that use the most antibiotics learn from those farms and vets that have already met the 70 per cent target.
The context in African countries is quite different from the Netherlands. But even so, the solution to address the risks of resistance to antibiotics requires a similar approach. Farmers, their organisations, their service providers, livestock businesses and the relevant government institutions need to work together to coordinate a joint plan of action to promote responsible use of antibiotics.
This post originally appeared in in the World Farmers’ Organisation’s F@rmletter.