Late last week, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) culled 20 pigs on a Yuen Long farm after animal urine samples revealed the illicit use of veterinary chloramphenicol, a potent antibiotic that is also used for treating human infections. The department is testing 43 other local livestock farms for similar practices.

Dr. Ko Wing-man, Secretary for the FEHD, has expressed great concern over this discovery, stating that “the tested antibiotics should not be used on animals, and even if such animal products are ingested in low concentrations, the accumulated effect of the antibiotic may be harmful to humans, and may contribute to antibiotic resistance”.

Photo: Stephen Fulljames via Wikicommons.

Antibiotic use in livestock speeds up maturation rates and can be used to prevent infection as well as treat it, especially where animals are kept in overcrowded conditions. It has therefore evolved to become a profitable practice for farm owners. Often, these antibiotics are procured through illegal means, such as unregulated online suppliers, as the Hong Kong authorities ban this type of use in most cases. Consumption of livestock or agricultural products imbued with antibiotics causes the drugs’ effects to accumulate in the human body, leading to harmful side effects and propagating the growth of resistant infections.

There are many surveillance bodies in place for drug-resistant organisms within the Hospital Authority and the Centre for Health Protection, and international medical circles are putting great emphasis on widespread antimicrobial resistance due to antibiotic over-prescription by doctors, and misuse by the agriculture and livestock industries. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization estimated that the economic burden of untreated antimicrobial resistance could total US$100 trillion by the year 2050. With the support of Hong Kong’s Margaret Chan, the Secretary General of the WHO, a resolution on the Global Action Plan was passed to combat rising antimicrobial resistance. The Global Action Plan will see collaboration with international veterinary and agriculture bodies such as the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the face of increasingly dangerous superbug infections.

margaret chan
File photo: Margaret Chan, Secretary General of WHO. Photo: Wikicommons.

Antimicrobial resistance has raised alarm among the medical profession in Hong Kong, as the city has a history of infectious disease outbreaks, in particular of tuberculosis. Professionals are especially worried by increasing mortality rates of patients with weakened immune systems and by the significant rises in healthcare costs. Despite a decreasing trend of reported cases of tuberculosis in Hong Kong, the Department of Health reports that incidence is around 10 times that of Western countries, and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis can take up to one year to treat. Other multi-drug resistant bacteria include E. coli, which caused an outbreak of disease in Germany and affected Western Europe and North America in 2011, urinary tract infections and pneumonia, which are relatively common in our population.

Currently, the FEHD is awaiting laboratory results for up to 1000 farm pigs to determine whether culling them is necessary. It is also planning to expand  testing to territory-wide livestock farmers to reduce the risk of antibiotic-resistant infections in consumers and antibiotic pollution in the local environment. These actions are in accordance with international recommendations in the fight to reduce misuse of antibiotics and the resultant economic and human burden of drug-resistant superbugs.

Zareen Chiba is a Hong Kong-based a medical student, global health advocate and freelance writer of Chinese-Indian descent. She covers international health, science and technology issues as well as disaster and humanitarian policy. Currently, she writes for the Hong Kong Medical Journal, the Independent Skies Magazine and various global health blogs. She seeks to bridge the communication gap between the scientist and the layman, and to inspire the interdisciplinary spirit of scientific discovery and humanitarian medicine in the community.