How veterinary medicine can save the world: Part 2, protecting the planet - DVM
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How veterinary medicine can save the world: Part 2, protecting the planet
According to one researcher, veterinarians' understanding of issues affecting global health is unmatched—which requires their involvement on the world stage.


A virus travels around the world in 24 hours—guess what: so does antimicrobial resistance

Keeping animals healthy creates a thorny problem that's the subject of Palmer's third research stream: antimicrobial resistance. Families with four head of livestock, or even 10 head, are not likely to use antibiotics on their animals. But as cities and populations grow, much of the world's demand for protein will generate huge pressure to protect livestock investments with antibiotics—often antibiotics that have been banned in the United States for more than three decades.

So even as the developing world craves more protein to feed its hungry, the method it uses to produce protein is a ticking time bomb. At the end of the fuse is the next dangerous microbe for which mankind has no remedy. Palmer says the idea that the developed world can protect itself from antimicrobial resistance by enacting strict antibiotic controls for meat production is simply "a fool's paradise."

"There's a lot of talk about how we need better inspection of animal products coming into the U.S.," he explains. "You get no argument from me on that. But we need to realize that inspections don't actually solve the problem, because people come and go."

People can pick up antibiotic resistance wherever they are, Palmer continues, especially in areas where antibiotics are used very heavily. "We find antibiotic residues in eggs in Nigeria, for example, without any problem," he says. "So the eggs I'm enjoying in the hotel in Nigeria, the resistance in them shows up in Kansas City 24 hours later. They say a pathogen can travel around the globe in 24 hours. So can antimicrobial resistance."

In fact, in a February article published by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Palmer and WSU colleague Douglas R. Call cited a 2001 study suggesting that antibiotic-resistance traits travel the globe at exponentially higher levels than pathogens.

A good example of the complexity of the problem can be found in Denmark, Palmer wrote, where strict inspection and strict laws have dramatically reduced the levels of antibiotics in pork and poultry. Unfortunately, pork and poultry also enter Denmark from other far less careful parts of the world. The emerging question is whether people will be willing to pay a premium for strictly controlled livestock products. The problem is exacerbated in the poorest countries where the dangers of antimicrobial resistance are pitted against the dangers of starvation. "No one can argue this isn't a fantastic achievement for Denmark," Palmer says. "The problem is that the rest of the world doesn't look like Denmark. Only Denmark looks like Denmark. This is great for Denmark, but you can't apply it to India. It isn't going to work."

The world doesn't just want cheap food; it needs cheap food, Palmer says. In particular, it needs cheap protein sources. "It's very easy to say, 'Well, Nigeria should really crack down and regulate their antimicrobial use in animals,'" he says. "They should. But that's probably not their highest priority."

In rural sub-Saharan Africa, the typical livestock-producing family owns an average of 10 chickens. They don't use antibiotics to protect their investment. If they lose a chicken, they get another from a neighbor and they're back in business. Tyson Foods, on the other hand, has an enormous investment to protect, so the company spends heavily on the latest biosecurity techniques. A slip-up would cost it millions. But in the developing world, midlevel producers are emerging with flocks of 500 or 1,000 birds, and that's where the most frightening problem lies, Palmer says. "Biocontainment is now replaced by antibiotics," he explains. "The danger is not only amounts, but which antibiotics they use. Specifically, chloramphenicol is used in Nigeria. It's sold on the street. You can find it in the eggs. And it's been banned for any use in food animals in the U.S. for 30 years."

This challenge, Palmer says, will confront veterinarians who work on the world stage for decades. Global population is expected to peak around 2050, he says, so enormous pressure will build worldwide for animal protein production. If better systems aren't developed, if new ideas aren't brought to bear on the problem, if political will isn't strengthened, Palmer says, much of that animal protein "will be covered in antibiotics."


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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