German government poised to tackle growing antibiotic resistance

Use of antibiotics in livestock farming greatly increases the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which pose a threat to humans and animals. [James Hill/Flickr]

Germany hopes to slow the development and spread of antibiotic resistance in medicine and agriculture with its new “DART 2020” strategy. But critics have their doubts, saying it does not do enough to curb large-scale use of antibiotics on livestock farms. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Stricter reporting obligations, more intensive monitoring and targeted research are all part of the government’s plan to stop the spread of highly hazardous bacteria.

On Wednesday (13 May), Merkel’s cabinet signed off on the strategy paper including measures to increase monitoring systems for early recognition of pathogens and antibiotic resistance.

Existing reporting obligations are also planned to be extended to include further multi-resistant pathogens.

Additionally, the plan indicates intentions to boost education services as well as further training for health care workers.

The new strategy would also require hospitals to include additional information on hygiene standards in their quality reporting.

Together with the pharmaceutical industry, the government intends to discuss possible obstacles in research and the development of new drugs.

Antibiotic resistance often make bacterial infections more difficult or impossible to treat because antibiotics lose their effectiveness.

Resistance in Germany’s hospitals is especially dangerous. Between 400,000 and 600,000 people are infected each year, resulting in 10,000-15,000 deaths. More and more frequently, antibiotic-resistant pathogens are among the causes.

“The worldwide spread of antibiotic resistances must be stopped,” explained Health Minister Hermann Gröhe. “If antibiotics are no longer effective, treatment options could return to those of a pre-Penicillin age.”

The plan is linked to Germany’s 2015 G7 presidency. With other industrialised countries, the German government is hoping to discuss measures to prevent the spread of antibiotic resistance in humans and animals.

“No country can stop the global rise in antibiotic resistances alone,” Gröhe said. A common action plan is expected to be finalised at the assembly of the World Health Organisation (WHO) next week, he indicated.

Environmentalists: antibiotic use in animal husbandry is excessive

Intensive livestock farming is one of the main reasons for the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Veterinarians administer antibiotics on a large scale. Because animals are packed so tightly into barns, the risk of disease is especially high.

Germany has prohibited the use of antibiotics to accelerate growth since 2006 and only allows it cramped barns with sick animals. Still, many veterinarians freely issue prescriptions so that drugs are still widely used.

In 2013 alone, 1,450 tonnes of antibiotics were administered at a combined cost of €800 million. That amounts to 167 tonnes less than in 2012 but is still double the amount experts recommend.

Turkey meat is particularly prone to carry harmful bacteria. In a nation-wide random sampling of turkey meat conducted a few months ago, experts from Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) found nearly 90% of meat samples contained antibiotic-resistant MRSA bacteria or ESBL producing bacteria, which can transfer antibiotic resistance to other bacteria.

Agriculture minister Christian Schmidt is hoping to limit the use of antibiotics in livestock farming. Since last year, the new German Medicines Act (AMG) requires farmers and veterinarians to be more specific about when they administer drugs to animals.

Since April 2014, livestock farmers must submit an official report every six months on which drugs they give their animals. Data from across the country is then collected and compared. Then, the authorities can mandate tests and countermeasures. But the agriculture minister has so far not moved to set rigid upper limits.

Green party: strategy far behind in EU comparison

But that is precisely what the Green party is advocating. According to its faction chairman in the Bundestag, Anton Hofreiter, the strategy against antibiotic resistance is lagging behind in an EU wide comparison, failing to achieve what is actually needed. In particular, measures against misuse of antibiotics are inadequate, he said.

“Report, research, monitor – if that is all the German government can think of with regard to the urgent issue of resistant antibiotics in livestock farming, then it will soon become apparent that this package is far from sufficient,” Green MEP Martin Häusling echoed. The strategy is missing clear targets for reduction, he said.

“Only in this way – and that can be seen in other EU countries – can the excessive use be controlled,” Häusling argued.

Häusling indicated other countries in the EU where some have clearly formulated goals. Sweden was able to cut the use of antibiotics in livestock barns by 40% within eight years. In the Netherlands the amount was reduced by half in five years.

Antimicrobial agents – such as antibiotics – have dramatically reduced the number of deaths from infectious diseases during the 70 years since their introduction.

However, through overuse and misuse of these agents, many micro-organisms have become resistant to them.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a global threat. It happens when organisms are able to survive medicines aimed to destroy them.

Bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, viruses to antivirals and parasites to drugs like antimalarials.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says 150,000 deaths a year are caused by multi-drug resistant tuberculosis.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimates that AMR results each year in 25,000 deaths in Europe and related costs of over €1.5 billion in healthcare expenses and productivity losses.

The situation is all the more serious because antimicrobials have become an essential tool for modern medicine. Many surgical operations could not be performed without them.

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