What it’s like to treat sick animals in the face of a mounting antibiotic crisis

by Kenneth Wameyo | Kenya Veterinary Association (KVA)
Monday, 13 November 2017 10:18 GMT

A cow walks near a pile of trash including plastic bags as it grazes in Nairobi, Kenya August 25, 2017. Picture taken August 25, 2017.REUTERS/Baz Ratner

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

They say you should never work with children or animals, and when it comes to medicine, the challenges are certainly very similar.

Like babies, animals cannot tell you they’re sick – you normally have to infer it from a loss of appetite or a change in behaviour.

But while paediatricians diagnose and treat just one species, veterinarians take care of any number of creatures – all with different needs and conditions. And this also varies between regions with different diseases prevalent in different parts of the world.

In places like Kenya, where I work, antibiotics have been crucial in managing a whole range of animal illnesses. Since the cause of disease in animals - from chickens to cattle and swine - is often bacterial, we simply could not manage without them.

If it were not for antibiotics, our flocks would be quickly wiped out from any of the otherwise fatal infections, causing devastating losses to the estimated 800 million smallholders in developing countries who rely on livestock production for their incomes.

The latest guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) warn against using antibiotics for growth promotion in animals to preserve critical drugs for human treatment.

But Kenyan farmers do not routinely use antibiotics in this way, not least because they can be too expensive or difficult to access. Rather, they use antibiotics in the hope of keeping away disease.

This is why when it comes to caring for animals in the face of growing levels of drug resistance and superbugs, we must look to the reason animals fall sick in the first place.

One of the biggest challenges, especially when it comes to the kind of small-scale farming we have across sub-Saharan Africa, is hygiene.

For example, we often find chickens are raised outdoors and in close proximity, which means they are more susceptible to diseases from wild birds that then quickly spread throughout the farm.

Farmers also find it difficult to keep their yards and coops constantly clean. Because of this, many see the solution in adding antibiotics to chicken feed before they get sick to stave off disease.

However, if we could improve hygiene in smallholder farms, we could slash our antibiotic use because the animals would be in better general health.

One opportunity to do this is by making the case for investing in vaccinations. Farmers, especially in developing countries, are often reluctant to spend money on vaccinations to solve a health problem that has not yet occurred.

But if we help them to properly understand the long-term benefits, it will not only save drugs for those who really need them but also the lives at risk from drug-resistant disease as well.

This is an example of how the entry and spread of disease can be controlled through good biosecurity practices in the first instance, leaving antibiotics as a secondary resort as needed.

Another example is through encouraging farmers and livestock producers to properly follow regulations that set out how long to wait after treatment before using an animal for food produce.

This is known as the withdrawal period and is designed to ensure antibiotics have been properly absorbed by the animal before they are used for meat, milk or eggs. This time buffer reduces the risk of produce contaminated with antibiotics being eaten by humans, which might contribute to increasing levels of resistance.

Finally, we also see farmers using the same antibiotic in different formulations to treat the same complaint. We must do more to support them to use the right treatment for their animals and avoid giving duplicate doses by improving diagnostic tests. After all, this wastes not only precious drugs but also money they cannot afford.

By taking samples, sending them to the lab and properly diagnosing the problem, we can know what organism we’re dealing with and treat it appropriately.

So, what we are trying to do in Kenya is to raise awareness among veterinarians and farmers not only about responsible antibiotic use but also about the ways in which they can improve the health and wellbeing of their animals to avoid disease as much as possible.

Through conferences and educational material, we keep relaying the messages to veterinarians and to farmers about how best to manage antibiotic use, and the better alternatives on offer.

Achieving this understanding is essential because we cannot risk facing a ban on these vital drugs otherwise. Antibiotics remain a life-saving treatment for humans and animals alike, and our work as veterinarians would be futile without them.

Kenneth Wameyo is Honorary Secretary of the Kenya Veterinary Association (KVA).