Widely promoted by the European Commission as a key tool to address the challenge of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), the new EU rules on veterinary medicines taking effect in January 2022 set out a number of limitations and restrictions regarding the use of antibiotics in animal health care.
Alongside supporting innovation, reducing administrative burden for the sector and improving availability of veterinary medicines across Europe, the new rules aim to strengthen the animal sector’s capacity to address antibiotic resistance. And the European Commission has lauded them as being the facilitator to help farmers deliver on aspirational targets proposed in the EU Farm to Fork Strategy to reduce use and sales of antimicrobials by 50% by 2030.
It shouldn’t be overlooked however that efforts so far to address AMR by Europe’s animal sector are widely recognised and clearly measurable. The recent report from the EMA (ESVAC report) recorded an overall decline in sales of veterinary antibiotics of 43.2% since 2011. And these efforts not only extend to the amounts of antibiotics used for animal health purposes, but also to the classes of antibiotics used. The report shows significant decreases in sales of veterinary antibiotics regarded as medically important: 32.8% for 3rd- and 4th-generation cephalosporins; 76.5% for polymyxins, 12.8% for fluoroquinolones and 85.4% for other quinolones.
“The new legislative updates serve to cement in law our principle of only using antibiotics as little as possible, but as much as necessary via a number of clear restrictions on use”
The animal health industry is fully aware of the importance of responsible antibiotic use as these precious medicines remain to this day the only solution for treating bacterial infections both in people and in animals. For more than a decade now the industry has worked together with veterinary partners, farmers and other animal owners to raise awareness on good antibiotic stewardship and these impressive outcomes are testimony to such efforts. The new legislative updates serve to cement in law our principle of only using antibiotics as little as possible, but as much as necessary via a number of clear restrictions on use.
From January 2022, and as is the case today, all antibiotics for animals remain prescription only throughout the EU, but the new rules are more explicit on prescriptions for preventive use of antibiotics. For example, antibiotics cannot be used to prevent illness (prophylaxis), except for an individual animal or a restricted number of animals, in case the risk of infection is very high, and the consequences are likely to be severe.
Antibiotics can only be used for treating a group of animals (metaphylaxis) when the risk of spread of an infection or infectious disease already present in the group is high and where no other appropriate alternatives are available. Prescriptions for antibiotics to be used for metaphylaxis must be limited in time to cover the period of risk of infection and limited to small groups of animals, only after diagnosis of the infectious disease by the vet. Prescriptions for antibiotics must also contain any warnings necessary to ensure responsible use of antimicrobials and they are only valid for 5 days after issuing.
As is also currently the case, the routine use of antibiotics to compensate for poor farm hygiene, inadequate husbandry, care or management, is not allowed. The ban on using antibiotics for growth promotion purposes or increased yield, in place since 2006, is also upheld.
A further key update is on the establishment of a list of antibiotics reserved for human health to be elaborated on the basis of scientific advice from the EMA. Member States are also granted the power to further prohibit the use of certain antibiotics in animals, but measures must be proportionate and justified, and the Commission must be informed when such measures are taken. It is important for politicians to remember that for animal welfare purposes vets should retain the right to treat specific diseases in animals with the appropriate antibiotic as and when necessary.
“It is important for politicians to remember that for animal welfare purposes vets should retain the right to treat specific diseases in animals with the appropriate antibiotic as and when necessary”
An additional point in the new rules states that these restrictions on antibiotic use and the prohibition to use treatments classed as important for human health will also apply to producers in third countries who export animals or animal-source food products into the EU.
The efforts made by Europe’s animal sector and the reduction in antibiotic use to date are now widely recognised by EU policymakers, and the confidence that further progress can be made as the new rules on veterinary medicines come into force in January 2022 is a welcome recognition that we are firmly headed in the right direction.
Further progress will come by ensuring that Europe’s vets and farmers can better protect animals from the threat of disease, by identifying health issues earlier and by treating them quickly and appropriately. This requires maximising the long-term and preventative health benefits of approaches such as: regular vaccination; appropriate nutrition; antiparasitics use; biosecurity measures; monitoring for signs of ill health; and availing of diagnostic tools. Further progress will also come when all parties join the animal health sector in acting at all times on the principle that antibiotics should only ever be used when necessary.
This article reflects the views of the author and not the views of The Parliament Magazine or of the Dods Group