Antibiotic resistance is no longer a future prediction. It is a serious problem globally, including India. In fact, India is considered as one of the main hotspots for antibiotics resistance in the world. In the last decade or so, more number of antibiotics are becoming ineffective against a greater number of bacteria to treat a wide-range of infections.
Antibiotic resistance happens because of the use and misuse of antibiotics in both humans and animals. Though misuse in humans is well studied and steps are being taken to address this problem, India has not taken any action to address the issue of antibiotic misuse in animals. But, there is a growing global concern of antibiotic resistance and its strong relation with antibiotic overuse and misuse in industrial rearing of animals for food (also known as food-producing animals) such as chicken.
Recognizing the growing threat of antibiotic resistance emanating from animals, we decided to do a major study to understand the extent of misuse of antibiotics in the poultry industry. Our Pollution Monitoring Laboratory (PML) tested antibiotics in chicken meat. We tested 70 raw samples from Delhi-NCR for most common antibiotics. This is the biggest study on antibiotic residues in chicken in India.
The results were shocking: 40 percent of chicken meat samples were found with residues of one or more of the antibiotics we tested i.e. tetracyclines such as doxycycline, chlortetracycline and oxytetracycline and fluoroquinolones such as enrofloxacin and ciprofloxacin. About 17 percent had multiple antibiotics. Antibiotics were found in all tissues tested - muscle, liver and kidney. The results showed that antibiotics are being misused in the poultry industry.
We then decided to investigate this issue on the ground. CSE’s team went to Haryana and Rajasthan to understand the poultry practices and also reviewed international best practices and regulatory landscape of India. Our ground truthing exercise confirmed what we feared. Antibiotics are being used as growth promoters in the poultry industry. In simple language, antibiotics are being given to fatten the chicken to make more profits.
We released our study on July 30, 2014 and shared our recommendations (see Hatching Superbugs for details) with the governments at the centre and states and stakeholders such as medical fraternity and veterinarians. The response of our study has been quite positive. The issue has been raised in the Lok Sabha and the government has been urged to develop comprehensive regulations. The Indian Medical Association on the other hand, has echoed our recommendation to ban antibiotic growth promoters in the poultry industry. However we are disappointed with the poultry industry, especially the big companies, who are denying the problem and are trying to mislead the public.
We believe that what we have found is the ‘Tip of the Iceberg’. Our understanding is that the misuse is widespread in cattle and fisheries as well.
It is very important to understand the dangers of antibiotic misuse in animals. Like humans, antibiotic resistant bacteria also develop in animals. But as we are feeding antibiotics regularly to animals, unlike most humans who take antibiotics when they are sick, the chances of the development of resistant bacteria in animals are very high and widespread. Once a bacterium develops resistance, it can transmit resistant genes to other species of bacteria apart from its own progeny and its own kind of bacteria. It is like a nuclear fission reaction. One resistant bacterium can make a large number of bacteria resistant. These resistant bacteria then can get transmitted to humans through food, direct contact or environment. People who do not eat animal products (vegetarians) can also get infected. This is the real danger of antibiotic misuse in animals.
The problem of antibiotic resistance has reached such a level that researchers and medical practitioners are now warning about a ‘post-antibiotic era’ — an era in which common infections and minor injuries can kill, as was the case when antibiotics were not invented. The other sign of worry is that no new antibiotics have been invented in the last three decades. Preserving the effectiveness of existing antibiotics is, therefore, the only way to postpone the ‘post-antibiotic era’. We all will have to work together to confront this global challenge.
We hope you find useful this antibiotic resistance special issue of our newsletter.