EU needs to urgently reduce use of antibiotics

If we don't reduce the use of antibiotics, we will be decades away from not being able to treat a simple sore throat, warns Christel Schaldemose.

By Christel Schaldemose

Christel Schaldemose is the Chair of the Delegation for relations with Japan

01 Oct 2015

There is a Danish expression that says, "ingen nævnt, ingen glemt". This roughly translates to, "nothing mentioned, nothing forgotten". 

When drafting its resolution on safer healthcare in Europe: improving patient safety and fighting antimicrobial resistance, Parliament did not take that approach. This resulted in an overlong resolution that tried to address many different issues related to patient safety.

But the length and the scope of the resolution cannot detract from its original message. We currently face a huge problem in terms of antimicrobial resistance, and it is one that will only continue to grow if we don’t ensure new developments in antibiotics and dramatically reduce their use by both humans and animals. 


If this pattern continues, we will only be a few decades away from not being able to treat a simple sore throat or other, life-threatening, diseases. 

Each year in Europe, 25,000 people die as a result of resistance to antibiotics. It's estimated that by 2050, this number will have gone up to 50 million people globally.

Almost all political groups understood how serious the issue is, and the resolution was adopted by 637 votes. This is the strongest message MEPs have ever sent on fighting antimicrobial resistance, both in support and in content. 

The signal from Parliament is clear - there is a need, and a political will, to act. In the report, we go so far as to say that the European Commission should consider proposing legislation on the use of antibiotics if there has been little or no progress in the member states within five years.

Certainly, it would be very useful to have a common EU legislative proposal in this area, but it would be terrible if the member states made no progress in the next five years.

Therefore, there are several initiatives that I hope national governments will implement. First, they should ensure antibiotics are used correctly, so that doctors only prescribe the amount necessary, and patients follow medical advice in taking the prescribed antibiotics. 

There should also be measures in place to prohibit doctors and veterinarians from earning money on the sale of antibiotics. 

Member states should also put an end to the practice of using this type of medicine as an instrument for preventing disease, which is, in reality, an excuse to neglect animal welfare.

Antibiotics are an important tool to treat various illnesses and diseases, and of course should be prescribed in such cases. Yet too often, doctors prescribe antibiotics as a preventative measure or because of a lack of correct diagnosis or treatment.

Antibiotics should only be prescribed once the patient has been diagnosed. Patients should be better informed about the need to follow doctors' instructions on how to take such medicine.

Studies have shown that 30 to 50 per cent of patients do not take medicines prescribed for them by their doctors, or do not take them as directed by their prescription. 

If someone does not take the entire box of medicine, or the amount prescribed, they cannot be sure the bacteria making them ill is gone, and therefore might need to repeat the antibiotic treatment.

In most European countries, doctors and veterinarians are allowed to sell antibiotics and earn money from their sale.

Not to question their professional opinion, but this does provide a greater economic incentive to prescribe this type of medicine. In countries where this practice is prohibited - in the Nordic states, for example - fewer antibiotics are prescribed.

While it's important to address the direct human consumption of antibiotics, in many countries, the use of this medicine in the animal sector accounts for up to 80 per cent of total consumption. 

This contributes to the development of resistant bacteria, which is then transferred to humans when they consume agricultural products such as pork meat.

Therefore, we must take a closer look at how to reduce the use of antibiotics in farm animals. Instead of using them for preventative purposes, they should be used primarily for treatment.

Antibiotics should not be used to compensate for the poor conditions these animals live in and lack of care-taking. Sadly, this is often what happens. For example, in many conventional farms, piglets are weaned from their mothers when they are just three weeks old, at which point they start being fed solid feed. 

Seeing as their stomachs are not ready to tolerate this, they are fed antibiotics to prevent diarrhoea and other diseases. 

If piglets were instead taken from the sow at the age of seven or eight weeks, there would be no need to give them antibiotics for preventative reasons.


Read the most recent articles written by Christel Schaldemose - Signature Dish: Christel Schaldemose’s brunsviger