Super bugs – a crime against humanity by Pharma companies

Kannaiyan Subramaniam, I am not a medical doctor or a veterinarian, I am a farmer. When I was a young boy, growing up in rural Tamil Nadu in the late 70’s, my uncle started a poultry farm with 200 birds. Before this, I never knew that poultry could be produced in an intensive, so-called ‘modern’ way.

There were so many birds in one shed, they got concentrated feed, modern medical treatment when the birds fell sick. I was also surprised to see that there were dedicated veterinary doctors who would come to inject the birds. This was during the early stages of the white revolution in India- when India more than doubled its milk production. Poultry production also started to become more popular- many poultry farms and broiler chicken farms came up all over the country. Today, India has become a huge producer and consumer of chicken and eggs.

Photo courtesy: Rahul.M

But this taste for chicken has led to a serious public health problem. The rampant use of antibiotics given to birds is having a spillover effect for humans. Many of the bacteria strains that cause common infections and diseases like tuberculosis or pneumonia are increasingly becoming resistant to these drugs because of prolonged exposure and natural selection. They are turning into super bugs, the drugs simply become ineffective against them, leading to antimicrobial resistance. Around the world, approximately 700,000 people die due to anti biotic resistance. Agriculture, particularly intensive animal/poultry farming has been identified as a major culprit.

Antibiotics are not only used to prevent sickness in birds, but broiler chickens are also fattened by feeding them. Antibiotics help to increase the conversion ratio of feed intake in to flesh. In normal circumstances, only sick animals and birds should be treated with anti-biotics, but todays multibillion dollar pharma industry discovered that boosting the use of antibiotics on healthy animals will maximize their profit. They initiated the criminal practice of promoting antibiotics on healthy animals all over the world.

Many of this anti-biotics are last hope medicines in human health. For example, Colistin is an antibiotic which is used for treating infections such as tuberculosis, pneumonia etc . The antibiotic Colistin is being used by the hundreds of tones in poultry farms to fatten chickens. On the other hand, people are increasingly eating chicken grown with anti-biotics.

The waste generated by these farms is also contaminating our water and food sources with superbugs and antibiotics. Thousands of chicken stalls across the country dispose chicken waste like skin, feathers and legs in water bodies and in open fields.

Recently a research conducted by a group of researchers from Christian medical college, Vellore and Apollo cancer hospital, Chennai, has found out that the raw vegetable samples lifted from 22 locations in Chennai city between October and November 2017; 46.4% of the samples were found to harbor the highly resistant to anti biotic Colistin. It is believed that the contamination in fruits and vegetable is a spillover from the poultry industry through poultry litter being used as manure in agriculture, this needs to be studied further.

Approximately there are around 100,000 veterinarians in India and most of them work for pharma companies. They don’t advise farmers to reduce antibiotic use, but to the contrary, act as promoters. The intensive contract poultry farming system has a close nexus with pharma companies. Such antibiotics can be easily purchased over the counter in India without a prescription, in most cases contract farms are directly getting the drugs through the contract farming system.

I met a top official of a global Pharma giant in Rome recently, he was of the opinion that those antibiotics that are necessary to treat humans could be banned. But, it is impossible to promote any judicial use of antibiotics in India due to the absence of independent veterinarians and a lack of any control on waste disposal.

I was recently a farmer panelist in a high-level side event on anti-microbial resistance in livestock organized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), World Health Organisation(WHO) and world organisation for animal health at the FAO headquarters in Rome. Pharma companies at the event argued that they don’t claim in their labels that the drug is for growth promotion, thus blaming farmers. I responded to them that in India, companies openly promote these drugs as growth promoters.

There was also serious argument when they claimed that antibiotics function as prophylactics, that is disease preventers, when given to healthy animals. They argued hard that there is no proof that use in healthy animals as growth promoters is directly connected to anti-microbial resistance.

The European union has already banned anti-biotic use as growth promoters. Companies are voluntarily stopping in the United States. The World health Organisation(WHO) has issued guidelines not to use antibiotics in healthy animals and as growth promoters. But, greedy pharma companies inhumanly sell these risky drugs to India and other developing countries.

Zoetis, a former subsidiary of Pifzer, a world’s biggest animal drug company sells antibiotics in India despite the risk of antimicrobial resistance, whereas they have different standard to United States. Is this not a crime against humanity?

National or international guidelines will not work on translational corporations, they need to be regulated by stringent legislations and regulations. A binding international treaty on TNCs to make them accountable is the need of the hour.

The government of India and world governments should immediately ban all antibiotics used as growth promoters in livestock and should bring in appropriate legislation and regulatory mechanism to control misuse of the drugs in general and make the pharma companies responsible.

The intensive, industry led livestock system where livestock can’t be grown without antibiotics is a faulty model and pharma companies are a part of the model.

People led and biodiversity based agro ecological livestock keeping should be supported by national governments and UN agencies. Research and use of viable alternative medicine for animals must also be supported.

Useful links for further reading.

Bureau investigates – broke the story on super bugs.

The Hindu News by Ramya Kannan on Colistin use in animal farms.

The Hindu news by Ramya Kannan on bacteria on Salad.

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