Time running out for NZ to tackle antibiotic resistance, says microbiologist

August 25, 2017

Time running out for NZ to tackle antibiotic resistance, says microbiologist

Dr Siouxsie Williams and journalist and MC Damian Christie. Photo: Finn Hogan

New Zealand's agriculture industry is contributing to the growing crisis of antibiotic drug resistance, according to a leading Kiwi scientist.

In a lecture at Auckland War Memorial Museum on Wednesday, Dr Siouxsie Williams, a University of Auckland microbiologist, spoke an audience of about 80 about the dangers of antibiotics losing their effectiveness.

If current trends continued, treatment for all forms of infection, and most forms of surgery would become more difficult, if not impossible, she said.

“The stakes are enormous, and time is running out”

Dr Wiles pointed to overuse of antibiotics as one of the major causes of resistance, not just in humans, but in animals as well.

Millions of tonnes of antibiotics are fed to livestock every year to keep them healthy.

The drugs are fed to even healthy animals, particularly those living in close quarters and large numbers, such as poultry.

“The more intensively the animal is farmed, the higher the use of antibiotics."

According to Dr Wiles, a high percentage of the antibiotics are not metabolised and so run through the animals as waste.

“The more antibiotics there are in the environment, the more places there are that these resistant bacteria can thrive.”

Resistance develops because each time an antibiotic is used, it is rarely 100 per cent effective. The few bacteria which survive will rapidly breed a new, more resistant population.

The speed with which this could happen is hard to overstate because the growth was exponential, Dr Wiles said.

In one day, given ideal conditions, a single cell of E. coli could produce a bacterial colony equal in size and weight to the entire planet. A week after that, it would fill the entire universe.

The conditions on earth are not suited for such extreme growth, but it did mean an resistant strains of bacteria could spread through large areas within hours.

Former Green MP Sue Kedgley has written extensively on this subject, and thinks New Zealand is turning a blind eye to the danger.

“If you were thinking of the ideal conditions for breeding resistance, it would be feeding low doses of antibiotics to 30,000 chickens in a shed.”

When asked why more wasn’t being done, Ms Kedgley pointed to a lack of political will in the Beehive to stand up to the agricultural lobby.

Both Ms Kedgley and Dr Wiles stressed there was nothing inherently wrong with animals being fed antibiotics, but the scale with which New Zealand was doing it was untenable.

Dr Wiles estimated resistant bacteria could be responsible for more deaths than cancer by 2050.

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