Antibiotic resistant bacteria are a huge problem in human medicine, and they’re an increasing problem in veterinary medicine. In pets, we are seeing dramatic increases in multidrug-resistant bacteria, some as a result of transmission from humans and some that are developing in animals. Regardless of the source, infections caused by resistant bacteria are a major problem. As resistance increases and we have fewer and fewer treatment options for some infections, the potential need to use certain antibiotics that are important for serious infections in humans ("big-gun" antibiotics) increases. This is a very contentious issue because concerns have been raised over the use of these drugs in animals and the potential impact on humans.
There are two extremes to the argument:
- These are critically important drugs in human medicine and they should never be used in animals.
- These drugs are used thousands of times a day in people and very rarely in animals, so the impact of periodic use in animals should be minimal, and failure to use them would result in animal deaths from potentially treatable infections.
I take the middle ground here. I am very concerned about antibiotic resistance (in pets and people) and I want to make sure that what I do does not have a negative impact on public health. I also realize that very rare and appropriate use of these drugs will realistically be unlikely to have any negative impact on public health, and that withholding treatment could cause animal suffering, death and prolonged infections that could be transmitted to their owners. The key, to me, is ensuring that use of these drugs is truly very rare and appropriate. At the Ontario Veterinary College, we have strict guidelines for use of "big-gun" antibiotics to try to ensure that there are used rarely and properly. For example, vancomycin can be used, but only when:
- An infection is present and it is known that the bacterium is resistant to all other options and susceptible to vancomycin.
- Local antibiotic administration or other types of alternative treatment are not options.
- It’s a serious infection that needs to be treated but it is treatable (i.e. no throwing a big gun drug at a patient that clearly has a terminal disease and does not have a realistic chance of surviving).
- Approval is obtained from the Chief of Infection Control (i.e. me).
With this approach, we’ve only had 1 case where vancomycin was used, and that was in 2001. That’s a pretty good record for a busy referral centre with a tertiary care caseload that sees "the worst of the worst." There have been a few instances when vancomycin was requested but with discussion and review of the case, better alternatives were identified. I’m certain that these guidelines have reduced the use of vancomycin and increased awareness of the problem, but have had no negative impact on patient care.
Antimicrobial resistance isn’t going away. We can control it but not eradicate it. Scrutiny of antibiotic use in veterinary medicine is also not going to go away, and in some ways, that’s a good thing. It should provide impetus to make sure that we improve how we use drugs, from the big guns down to our day-to-day drugs. Realistically, it’s the regular use (appropriate use, overuse and misuse) of less exotic antibiotics that is having a bigger impact on antimicrobial resistance, and we need to pay attention to that as much as to the high-profile drugs.