Federal government unveils plans to tackle drug resistance

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose has held a workshop 
with industry to discuss the plan

barn full of chickens

The federal government has unveiled a national plan for tackling the growing threat from bacteria increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

Late on April 17, the Department of Health issued a press release saying it would propose regulations under the Food and Drugs Act to end growth-promoting claims and bulk imports. It didn’t provide any details on the contents of the regulations.

“There’s a lot of detail in it that needs to be fleshed out,” Jim Fairles, past president of the Canadian Veterinary Medicine Association, said in an interview after participating in a recent workshop with Health Minister Rona Ambrose and her officials on the plan. “Along with the farm commodity groups, we discussed the steps we’ve already taken and what more we need to do. We’ll need a lot more discussion on human and livestock medicines.”

Back in 2008, the veterinary association and the Canadian Animal Health Institute (CAHI), which represents drug manufacturers, launched a prudent use campaign to teach farmers about the appropriate use of antibiotics to control sickness in their animals without jeopardizing their effectiveness in treating humans. The program was embraced by the major livestock associations and is included in their sustainable agriculture guidelines.

The issue gained a higher profile last year when U.S. President Obama announced a $44-million program to combat antimicrobial resistance, which he said causes at least two million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the U.S. annually. Comparable numbers for Canada are not available.

The Ontario Medical Association last year called for tighter controls over the use of medicines in livestock production to prevent a worsening AMR situation.

CAHI president Jean Szkotnicki said in an interview that Canada needs to “harmonize its antimicrobial-resistance (AMR) policies with the rest of the world. Otherwise we could lose trade opportunities.”

Last year, her association voluntarily offered to stop labelling about 60 medicines for use as livestock growth promoters, which comes into effect next year. It also urged the federal government to stop allowing farmers to import medicines from the U.S., which they can administer without veterinary supervision.

It now is urging Health Canada to end the import of bulk active pharmaceutical ingredients, which are unregulated. “There are no controls on where these products come from or on the quality of the ingredients.” The own-use and bulk imports account for about 30 per cent of the antibiotics used on farms.

The veterinary association agrees that both types of imports should be ended.

At the workshop, Ambrose acknowledged that AMR is a global challenge and said Canada will contribute US$250,000 to support a World Bank study of the economic impacts of AMR. Health Canada will work closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on an AMR approach “given the high degree of integration of the meat and livestock production markets in both countries.”

Health Canada and the Public Health Agency will begin a project to collect data to create “an integrated, national picture of antimicrobial use and resistance across Canada.”

As well, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Agriculture Canada will develop a plan for monitoring antibiotic use in livestock production.

The Public Health Agency says that more than three-quarters of antimicrobials are administered in Canada, mostly to promote growth by reducing illness. “Using antibiotics in animals should be limited to treating infection.”

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