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'Hugely Important Breakthrough for Human and Animal Health' as EU Approves Antibiotic Restrictions for Livestock to Battle Superbugs

"Antibiotic resistance is a real sword of Damocles, threatening to send our health care system back to the Middle Ages."

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The European Parliament on Thursday approved new rules for medicine use on healthy livestock in an effort to battle superbugs. (Image: Avicultura.com)

In a move celebrated by experts and activists who continue to raise alarm about the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance—fueled in part by rampant overuse of medicines in agriculture—the European Parliament on Thursday approved new rules for antibiotic use on healthy farm animals.

"This is a hugely important breakthrough for human and animal health and is by far the more serious attempt that Europe has ever made to achieve responsible antibiotic use in farming."
—Cóilín Nunan, Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics

"This is a hugely important breakthrough for human and animal health and is by far the more serious attempt that Europe has ever made to achieve responsible antibiotic use in farming," declared Cóilín Nunan, campaign manager of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, a coalition of EU-based medical, health, agricultural, environmental, consumer, and animal welfare groups.

About 73 percent of the world's medicines are currently used on livestock, Nunan noted, and "farming accounts for about two thirds of all antibiotic use in Europe, so if the legislation is implemented correctly, we should be seeing very large reductions in use in years to come."

The "long-awaited" law, which is set to take effect in 2022, will limit preventative use of antibiotics on groups of animals; empower European regulators to designate certain medicines for human use only; impose restrictions on imports; and encourage new research and protections for new drugs.

It was approved in a 583-16 vote with 20 abstentions. A separate measure that also garnered support from an overwhelming majority of MEPs will set restrictions on the sale and use of medicated feed for livestock.

MEP Molly Scott Cato, of the U.K., pointed out that the legislation could have broader positive impacts, explaining to the Guardian that it "will also challenge the factory farming model where animal suffer appalling conditions and are packed together in unhealthy conditions," because "without the routine use of antibiotics, farmers will need to adopt better farming practices."

Warning that "antibiotic resistance is a real sword of Damocles, threatening to send our health care system back to the Middle Ages," MEP Françoise Grossetête of France called the legislation "a major step forward for public health."

"Without swift action to reduce infections, we are at risk of putting medicine back in the dark ages—to an age where common procedures we take for granted could become too dangerous to perform and treatable conditions become life-threatening."
—Dame Sally Davies, England's chief medical officer

Her remarks echoed those of England's chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, as her government launched the Keeping Antibiotics Working Campaign earlier this week.

Davies, according to the Guardian, warned "that without swift action to reduce infections, we are at risk of putting medicine back in the dark ages—to an age where common procedures we take for granted could become too dangerous to perform and treatable conditions become life-threatening."

A Public Health England report published this month found 3 million common surgeries such as caesarean sections and hip replacements could become hazardous without serious and widespread efforts to prevent the rise of superbugs, or strains of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Despite the report, campaign, and Davies' warning, there are concerns about which aspects of the EU legislation the United Kingdom will follow, as it is slated to take effect post-Brexit. Michael Grove, the nation's Tory environmental secretary, has reportedly challenged the provision that will outlaw preventative mass medication of livestock.

While urging the U.K. to comply with Europe's new rules—which largely align with suggestions from the World Health Organization (WHO)—Nunan concluded, "The EU must now use its collective power, alongside the WHO, to push for tighter regulation of global farm antibiotic use, or else we will be soon facing into the post-antibiotic era."

Praising Europe for passing the legislation, Matt Wellington, head of U.S. PIRG's antibiotics program, said, "let's follow the example here in the U.S."

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