Crackdown sought on farm use of antibiotic
Health experts have called for the urgent implementation of a ban on the use of the "last resort" antibiotic colistin on farms, because of the growing spread of superbugs in humans.
Colistin is widely used to promote livestock growth and prevent disease, but doctors treating humans have seen an upsurge in bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic.
This is because traces of the colistin given to animals ends up in the food people eat, and bacteria that are exposed to these small quantities of the drug are able to build up resistance to it.
Professor Marc Mendelson, chair of a ministerial advisory committee on antimicrobial resistance, said one study had shown that colistin resistance in E.coli from food production samples in SA leapt from 3% in 2012 to 13% in 2014.
Dr Mphane Molefe, director of veterinary public health at the department of agriculture, said if colistin was not quickly banned on farms it would lead to fatalities among people with "minor cuts, wounds and very minor ailments".
Molefe, a board member of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority, was one of the speakers at an international antimicrobial resistance workshop in Cape Town this month.
"Because the bacteria is used to that environment due to the meat that humans eat . the bacteria becomes stronger and stronger," he said.
"Treating it with antibiotics is like adding water, and people end up dying. We need to act now and restrict the use of antibiotics on animals."
Even though legislation to prevent animals being given the drug is not yet in place, the South African Veterinary Council recommended two years ago that it should be given to food-producing animals only as a last resort.
This meant farmers were no longer allowed to routinely add it to feed or water, or administer it as prophylaxis treatment.
Moritz van Vuuren, a professor in virology at the University of Pretoria's department of tropical veterinary disease, said the restriction on colistin was "one of the first in the world".
In April last year, agriculture minister Senzeni Zokwana called for public comments on a proposal to ban the use of colistin in animal feed or to medicate livestock.
The Sunday Times asked the department this week if and when the ban would be implemented, but received no response.
More than 30 nations have reported colistin-resistant pathogens so far, and on January 1 Malaysia became the latest country to ban the antibiotic in animal feed. India is about to follow suit.
The World Health Organisation has warned in recent years that antibiotics should be restricted in animals and banned as growth promoters to avoid antimicrobial resistance, which it has described as a threat to public health.
Diseases becoming more resistant to antibiotics include malaria and tuberculosis, and surgeries once regarded as risk-free have become dangerous due to the presence of superbugs in hospitals.
Molefe said some farmers were allegedly importing colistin's active ingredients disguised as "raw materials".