A familiar public education campaign uses the catch phrase “Not all bugs need drugs.” It has been around for the last few years in an effort to get the public to think about the need for prescription drugs to treat minor ailments. This program has been largely brought out by our health care profession and the government agencies that administrate health care. Why is this important and how does this relate to us and our pets and our farm animals?
To start, let’s look at the history of antibiotic use in medicine. Penicillin and sulfonamide antibiotics were discovered in the period between the First and Second World Wars. The first use of these drugs was at the time of the Second World War. They were miracles! Lives previously lost to infections were saved by the hundreds and thousands. A great rush to find more of these bacteria fighters was soon undertaken and new families of antibiotics came forth. Soon these wonderful medical tools were brought into the veterinary world to save our pets and our livestock animals as well.
However, bacteria adapt. By chance mutation, under pressure from the antibiotics that wipe out the weaker sensitive bacteria, stronger resistant bacteria developed. In the space of one human lifetime, the infections that penicillin and sulfonamides used to easily treat have developed resistance to nearly every known antibiotic. They are now called “superbugs.” They are kind of scary.
Antibiotic use has been a cornerstone of modern medicine and, secondarily, veterinary medicine. In fact, some of the largest volumes of antibiotics are used in animals to maintain health and even prevent health problems in our food production systems.
What does all this mean to us?
First, the health of human patients is at risk and superbugs are very difficult to treat with the antibiotic tools we have. We do not want to lose the last tools that work to save lives. At the most recent Canadian Veterinary Convention, there was a full day summit about antimicrobials in animal health. One speaker compared antimicrobial resistance on the scale with the current war on ISIS. Potentially many more lives could be lost than by a war displacing millions of people from their homes as they flee to safety!
Second, we must use every method to maintain health, and not rely as heavily on our antibiotics. This is not just a problem of human medicine, but veterinary medicine too, and all people looking after pets and livestock.
New antibiotics are increasingly difficult to find. Resistance to them is not. Indeed, it is accelerating. This problem can only be solved if all parties work together. New regulations are on the horizon and some antibiotics may become reclassified and more strictly controlled. More control on sale and use of antimicrobials will follow. Health care providers must make informed decisions and choose treatment wisely. It is very important that antibiotics work when we need them to work.
The health of one depends on the health of all. One health—we all play a part.
Dr. Perry Spitzer is an owner and director of North Peace Veterinary Clinic Ltd. with his life and veterinary partner, Dr. Corinne Spitzer.