Antibiotic resistance: alarm bells over ivermectin misuse

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While South Africa will, most likely, miss its target of vaccinating 1.5 million people by the end of March, a leading supplier of beef products has warned of a possible shortage of ivermectin.

This, after the injectable cattle formulation has become the world’s most profitable veterinary drug during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation.

Roelie van Reenen, supply chain executive at the Beefmaster Group, believes a far bigger issue with long-term consequences is the preventative use of antibiotics in livestock.

Roelie van Reenen, supply chain executive at the Beefmaster Group. Photo: Supplied
Roelie van Reenen, supply chain executive at the Beefmaster Group. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

His warning comes after ivermectin – used to treat parasites in livestock – was given the green light for so-called compassionate use by humans in the fight against Covid-19.

“This (prophylactic use of antibiotics) not only threatens the health of the herd, but also harms the future profitability of the industry,” says Van Reenen.

He cautions industry role-players to guard the crucial economic role of the livestock industry over the long term. This, he believes, starts with practising the safe and responsible use of antibiotics. Earlier, Food For Mzansi reported that the national demand for ivermectin has seen its price sky-rocketing from R49 to as much as R900.

‘Ivermectin is not an antibiotic’

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Now, the Beefmaster executive warns, ivermectin should not be used as an antibiotic.

“Ivermectin is a drug – not an antibiotic – the shortage of which may only be a short-term issue.” – ROELIE Van Reenen

Van Reenen adds, “If we do not protect the antibiotics that we currently have at our disposal, which are vital in the treatment of many infectious diseases in livestock, we will be left with very few options with which to treat our animals in future. This will have a major impact on our industry.”

ALSO READ: Parallel vaccine drive needed for Brucellosis & Covid-19

The Beefmaster Group has long been a proponent of judicious antibiotic use in animals. The group, which works with both farmers to access a variety of cattle for its production needs, is clear that it won’t accept cattle from farmers who have prophylactically administered antibiotics to calves and weaners.

Stern warning to farmers

Antibiotic resistance: productivity, ivermectin quickly became a blockbuster drug in the veterinary field. Photo: Supplied
Given its broad spectrum against internal and external parasites that improved animal health and boosted productivity, Ivermectin quickly became a blockbuster drug in the veterinary field. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Furthermore, Beefmaster has a responsible antibiotic use policy at its feedlot in Christiana in North West.

Here, the group works closely with animal health experts who share this view of administering medication to its animals. 

Van Reenen says industry role-players need to champion the responsible use of antibiotics. 

“We call on the industry to change the approach from using antibiotics as a management tool to prevent illness to only using it under the guidance of a veterinarian who has been trained in terms of knowing what to use and when to treat sick animals,” says Van Reenen.

“This is because the incorrect use of antibiotics causes antibiotic resistance and limits the opportunity for the meat producer to get a quality product from an animal previously treated with antibiotics. It also leads to the development of resistance to that particular group of antibiotics.”

Fears of antibiotic resistance

Van Reenen explains that use of schedule 4 drugs in the agricultural industry is showing an upward trend. He believes it will eventually lead to farmers being unable to treat sick cattle once the bacteria develop resistance to these treatments.

“If the bacterial populations in our cattle develop resistance due to the overuse of antibiotics, we won’t be able to treat diseases effectively because it takes many years to develop a safe and effective antibiotic, and there are no new antibiotic developments even in the research phase for use in production animal medicine,” says Van Reenen.

“We need a more holistic approach to the use of antibiotics in animals so that it helps to build herd health, not destroy it.”

Antibiotic resistance: Employees of the Beefmaster Group have received a special Covid-19 bonus “to thank them for riding out a very tough year”, says Beefmaster Group CEO Louw van Reenen. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Employees of the Beefmaster Group have received a special Covid-19 bonus “to thank them for riding out a very tough year”, says Beefmaster Group CEO Louw van Reenen. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Meanwhile the Beefmaster Group has developed a “Farm to fork” programme that aims to educate producers about creating a healthier herd.

The programme uses experienced and qualified veterinarians who are passionate about preventing antibiotic resistance to help cattle farmers understand the dangers of the excessive use of antibiotics.

“We need everyone to understand that having a healthier herd means being able to have a full, traceable history of the animal. We need transparent herd management. This will help farmers produce quality South African beef that will be superior in the long term.

“This is because these animals will be far more valuable than those that have been over-exposed to antibiotics, which is the key to access more and better global beef markets,” concludes Van Reenen.

ALSO READ: Farmworkers: ‘Why aren’t we first in vaccine line?’

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