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Treat the animal, not the disease

The WHO recently published new guidelines on antibiotic use in food-producing animals. Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, executive director of HealthforAnimals, believes the solution to superbugs is not as simple as using fewer antibiotics. Instead, the answer lies in long-term improvements to general health and welfare.

If the explanation for the growing antibiotic crisis were as straightforward as the overuse of drugs in humans or in animals, then the solution would be simple - just use fewer.

But the reality is much more complex. For animals as for humans, disease is a constant threat and when farm animals fall sick, they too need antibiotics for treatment. Without them, animals would suffer cruel deaths at the hands of diseases like anthrax or pneumonia.

This is why the latest guidelines from the WHO, which recommend restrictions on antibiotic use in animals, are unlikely to help address the issue of resistance.

Based on low quality evidence, such recommendations could prohibit veterinarians from treating animals in danger of disease and hurt the billions of people who rely on livestock worldwide.

So, while using antibiotics responsibly is a key part of tackling drug-resistant disease, the real solution lies in promoting better health in the first place. The healthier the animal, the less it will need antibiotics.

By developing better ways to keep livestock and pets in good shape, we can prevent disease, and offer veterinarians and farmers a greater range of health products beyond antibiotics.

Though the animal health sector is 40 times smaller than the human pharma industry, which is worth $1.13 trillion, it is investing billions of dollars in new products to achieve precisely this.

We know that the best way to avoid disease and reduce the need for antibiotics, along with good hygiene, is through vaccinations.

Inoculations can control animal infections and diseases including those which cause E coli in poultry. Like protecting children from serious diseases with routine vaccinations, we can improve the immunity of animals to keep them healthy in the long-term.

Another way to treat animals without compromising human health is through animal-only antibiotics.

Drugs used exclusively in animals pose almost no risk of contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans and can also be more targeted to animal needs. We are working to increase the availability of these treatments so shared drugs can be avoided.

Finally, we can also use supplements – like vitamins – to promote better animal health. Nutritional supplements in poultry feed can improve intestinal health, which may also lead to lower levels of disease and reduce the need for antibiotics.

So, there are many ways to improve animal health to reduce the need for antibiotics but it is not enough to simply use fewer.

And while we develop cutting edge alternatives, we must also support veterinarians and farmers to use them. Our members work in more than 130 countries, offering guidance and support on how to best keep animals fit and healthy.

But we can do more. Governments around the world make public health for people a top priority. Animals deserve the same.

It is time to start treating the animal and not the disease, and that means looking beyond simple solutions. It means more investment, more research and more support for diverse animal health products. Without that, the prognosis – for people and animals – will remain bleak.

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