Auditor general slams federal inaction on antimicrobial drugs for livestock

Little progress has been made after more than a decade of discussions

The federal government has failed to take effective measures to contain the proliferation of drug-resistant bugs that threaten human health and to prevent the overuse of antimicrobial drugs in livestock production, says Auditor General Michael Ferguson.

The Public Health Agency and Health Canada “have not fulfilled key responsibilities to mitigate the public health risks posed by the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in Canada,” Ferguson notes in his spring report on how the government has managed public finances.

AMR is on the rise across Canada and in hospitals alone, “about 18,000 Canadians contract drug-resistant infections every year.” However, the Health Agency “is not collecting all the surveillance information needed to understand the scope of AMR in Canada.”

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He also recalled that back in 1997, the former government had proposed the development of a national AMR strategy. While the current government said in 2009 that action was required, there was little progress on the strategy “and in our view, it will likely be many years before there is one.”

While the department requires a doctor’s prescription for the use of these drugs in humans, it doesn’t always require a veterinarian’s authorization for treating livestock with them. It admits that the use of certain drugs in food production “may have serious health implications.”

Ferguson’s conclusions reinforce concerns that the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has been raising for years, said president Jean Gauvin. “CVMA has expressed the need for a comprehensive national all-sectors strategy to address the growing concerns surrounding AMR.”

The vets support the call for the federal government to “priority actions, clarify roles and responsibilities, and establish clear and realistic deadlines for the development of a pan-Canadian strategy to address AMR.”

“While there is much work to be done to address AMR in Canada,” he added, “we look forward to collaborating with stakeholders from agriculture, veterinary medicine and human medicine to ensure we stay on target” with the goal of bringing Canada’s AMR’s prevention policies up to international standards by the end of next year.

Ferguson said Health Canada had failed to strengthen “existing regulations to prohibit farmers from importing unlicensed non-prescription drugs that are important to human medicine use,” he added.

In addition to completing the national AMR strategy and banning unauthorized and regulated imports, Health Canada should also periodically review “all antimicrobials important to human health to determine whether their approved uses and availability in veterinary medicine increase the risk that these antimicrobials will become ineffective in treating infections in humans,” he urged.

The Public Health Agency had failed to develop the national strategy with the provinces to address the issue even though that seemed to preoccupy it more than acting on AMR-prevention recommendations from agriculture and veterinary medicine groups.

Last year, the Canadian Animal Health Institute and the veterinarians’ association called on Ottawa to ban livestock farmers from importing drugs without a prescription and to prevent the importation of bulk shipments of medicines to treat animals.

The government finally announced in early April that it would be preparing regulatory amendments to do that. This action followed a hastily arranged March 31 workshop on AMR at which Health Minister Rona Ambrose talked about what her department would be doing. Industry insiders note that by this time, the government knew how critical Ferguson would be of Health Canada’s handling of the issue.

In a release about the closed-door meeting, the minister didn’t acknowledge the actions the industry had been taking since the veterinary association introduced its prudent measures program in 2008 to teach farmers about the dangers of AMR.

Last year, the U.S. government launched a major program to tackle AMR in the United States. In response, Health Canada would only say it was working on a plan.

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