Just the other week, while reading her daily newspaper over breakfast, Mrs Macfarlane challenged me to explain what Alnorthumbria Vets are doing to avert the ‘looming disaster’ of superbugs and antibiotic resistance.
She was increasingly concerned at frequent news items predicting imminent, catastrophic failure of our current antibiotics.
I conceded that Mrs Macfarlane’s worry is, indeed, well-founded.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming noticed the effect that a substance from Penicillium mould had on bacteria cultured in his basement laboratory in what is now Imperial College, London.
Penicillin was eventually mass produced in 1945 and since then antibiotics have been the mainstay for the control of bacterial infections.
Countless lives have been saved and enhanced by a regular production-line of newer and improved antibiotics.
Diseases have been eradicated and operations have been made possible, safe in the knowledge that our antibiotics would manage any complications from bacterial infection.
But, while these marvellous medicines were transforming human medicine, veterinary medicine and farming, the bugs were evolving into new strains. And some of these strains were becoming resistant.
The simple fact is that the more we use antibiotics, the faster the bacteria around us will evolve to survive their effects. The news stories suggest that resistance is something new, but in truth antibiotic resistance has been happening for thousands of years.
You see, many of our antibiotics are naturally occurring (or modifications of naturally occurring) compounds, and so bacteria have always been exposed to them and have always found ways to resist their effects.
The difference today is that over the last 70 years antibiotics have been made in factories and distributed globally, sometimes to regions with little or no control over their correct use.
The result is that the World Health Organisation’s 2014 report stated that antibiotic resistance ‘is now a major threat to public health’.
So, Mrs Macfarlane, what are Alnorthumbria Vets doing about it?
From a personal perspective, I learned about antibiotic resistance in the second and third years at vet school in the early 1980s.
Today, as a veterinary practice, each of our species teams has a director who oversees our medicines selection and correct usage.
Antibiotic stewardship is a priority when treatments are prescribed by our vets for your pets, horses and livestock. We try to make you aware of the importance of treating with the correct antibiotic, at the correct dose and for the correct length of time.
Our farmers are becoming familiar with the ‘black list’of critically important antibiotics which are available for use in their livestock, but which are essential for treatment of particular human diseases. These are only used in specific, carefully controlled circumstances on our farms.
Our fundamental ethos is to encourage you to invest in disease prevention rather than to have you pay for disease treatment.
As members of XLVets, we collaborate with over 50 other practices across the UK. Each practice reviews, discusses and improves their antibiotic policies as a group.
Our professional organisations devote a substantial proportion of their communications to improving understanding of resistance.
They also interact with the medical profession, pharmaceutical companies and environmentalists to help understanding of the issue.
Mrs Macfarlane seemed quite satisfied that we were doing our bit to address the issue, but what can you, our clients, do?
I hope that this simple checklist will help.
1. As much as possible, prevent diseases by using vaccines and management methods to minimise infectious diseases.
2. Only give your animals antibiotics when, and as advised by, your vet.
3. Only use antibiotics from legitimate suppliers (your vet or pharmacist).
4. Always use the correct antibiotic, at the correct dose, for the correct length of time (all as advised by your vet).
5. Always return unused antibiotics to your vet for disposal – don’t allow them to contaminate the environment.
If we all keep doing our bit and you all keep doing your bit, we’ll all still have antibiotics that continue to work for all of us for many years to come.