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How we monitor resistance in bacteria found in animals

Bacteria that cause disease in animals (veterinary pathogens):

While treatment failure in animals due to antibiotic resistance is not on the same scale as found in humans in the UK, further development of antibiotic resistance in veterinary pathogens could have serious implications for animal health. Increased resistance could result in an inability to treat some important animal diseases, which would affect the welfare of those animals affected. It could also affect the viability of livestock production, with an impact on the availability of meat and other animal products.

The VMD conducts an ongoing surveillance programme to monitor resistance in bacteria of veterinary importance, in order to identify trends in patterns of resistance, and to ensure an 'early warning system' for any new types or patterns of resistance.

In addition, the UK is part of an initiative, co-ordinated at EU level, which seeks to build on work conducted by the veterinary industry to improve target animal pathogen surveillance the 'Target Pathogen Monitoring Programme'. For more information on this initiative, see the HMA-V website.

Bacteria that can transfer between animals and humans (zoonotic bacteria):

Many bacteria can be carried by (and transmitted between) animals and people, either through the food chain, via the environment, or by physical contact. Some of these bacteria can cause no signs of illness in certain species of animals, but cause serious disease in humans. Salmonella and Campylobacter are two groups of bacteria that do not necessarily cause health problems in animals, but can cause mild or severe illness in humans; they are both common causes of 'food-poisoning'. Since increased resistance to antibiotics in these groups of bacteria could result in any subsequent disease being harder to treat, there is a legal requirement to monitor resistance levels in Salmonella obtained from food producing animals.. As outlined in the European Commission Decision 2013/652/EU, which came into force on the 1st January 2014, there is now a legal requirement to monitor resistance levels in Campylobacter and in commensal E. coli obtained from food producing animals.

Extended-Spectrum Beta-Lactamases (ESBLs):

Extended-spectrum beta-lactamases (ESBLs), are enzymatic proteins that confer upon their host bacteria, for example E. coli, the ability to destroy a wide range of therapeutic beta-lactam antibiotics (i.e. penicillin and cephalosporin antibiotics). These antibiotics are used in the treatment of severe infections in humans and, to a lesser extent, in animals; increased resistance to these types of antibiotics is therefore of significant concern.

The genes that enable bacteria to produce ESBLs are commonly exchanged between different species of bacteria. Whilst the presence of these resistance genes in 'commensal' bacteria, (i.e normal healthy gut flora) is not an issue, these genes may be transferred to a pathogenic (disease causing) bacteria - making treatment of resulting infections difficult. Both animals and humans have the potential to act as reservoirs for ESBL genes and therefore there is concern regarding the potential risk of transfer of these genes between bacteria from animals and humans.

Previous studies have identified that ESBL resistance genes found in E. coli isolated from animals and meat in the UK are distinct from the genes associated with resistance in the vast majority of human infections. Nevertheless, the risk must be taken seriously as the reasons for these differences are not yet well understood. From 2015 there will be a legal requirement for EU Member States to monitor and report information on ESBL or AmpC or Carbapenamase (other beta-lactamases) producing E. coli isolated from food producing animals at slaughter and retail meat. There is already cross-Government collaboration on this issue, for example a joint DARC ARHAI report was published on 7 February 2012.

Surveillance programmes:

EU Member States are legally obliged (Directive 2003/99/EC, Commission Decision 2007/407/EC), to monitor and report antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in certain zoonotic organisms (Salmonella, Campylobacter, and commensal E. coli) from animals and food. Some EU Member States additionally voluntarily monitor AMR in other bacteria, for example in commensal bacteria and in veterinary pathogens.

The VMD undertakes a programme of AMR surveillance in animals which includes on-going monitoring of resistance in zoonotic organisms, commensal bacteria and veterinary pathogens. The VMD is in the process of implementing sampling programmes to meet the requirements for monitoring of additional bacterial species as outlined in European Commission Decision 2013/652/EU.

Since 1970 there has been regular monitoring in the UK of the patterns and prevalence of AMR in Salmonella recovered from animals and their environment. Since 1998 the results of antibiotic susceptibility testing of veterinary pathogens and some commensal organisms (including Escherichia coli) have been collected. The bacteria on which this testing is performed come from a variety of sources, including:

  • Salmonella samples collected in accordance with the Statutory Surveillance of Salmonella in Animals legislation, these include samples obtained via the National Control Programmes (NCP) in poultry species. The AHVLA Salmonella surveillance programme covers England and Wales and captures data from Salmonella incidents reported in accordance with statute, as well as from incidents of clinical salmonellosis in animals and from voluntary monitoring undertaken by private vets and by livestock industry. All Salmonella isolates from new incidents of Salmonella infection in farm animals are examined for their antimicrobial susceptibility. Results are published annually on the AHVLA website.
  • Non-Statutory surveillance of clinical veterinary diagnostic samples. The determination of the antimicrobial susceptibility of bacteria from clinical diagnostic material voluntarily submitted to AHVLA Regional Laboratories permits ongoing monitoring of antimicrobial susceptibility in bacteria of veterinary origin (both zoonotic and veterinary pathogens) in England and Wales. The majority of samples are from food-producing species.
  • Various discreet surveys (at abattoir or farm level) have been undertaken in previous years to monitor the antimicrobial susceptibility of Campylobacter, E. coli, Salmonella and Enterococci in a number of farm animal species.

The AMR data from Scotland and Northern Ireland is derived from a combination of complementary surveillance activities covering statutory and industry Salmonella monitoring programmes and clinical diagnostic submissions.

The results of all of the above surveillance programmes are considered on a regular basis by the Defra Antimicrobial Resistance Co-ordination group, (DARC).

The Government contributes antimicrobial susceptibility data annually to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for inclusion in the EU Summary Report on Antimicrobial Resistance. This report is published annually on the EFSA web site.

Below is the UK Veterinary Antibiotic Resistance and Sales Surveillance Report:

Historical reports can be found on the links below.

Last Updated: 18 November 2013

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