Dutch urge greater Europe-wide action on antimicrobial resistance

Doctors and farmers need to use antibiotics less and more wisely, says Dutch health minister

Dutch Ministers Schippers and Van Dam

Dutch government officials urged European ministers of health and agriculture to tackle the growing problem of antibiotic misuse. 

Resistance is shooting up across the globe with an increasing number of infections defying treatment with antibiotics. The finger of blame points to poor infection control in hospitals, heavy over-prescription by doctors around the world, and the broad use of antibiotics in livestock, according to Dutch health minister Edith Schippers, speaking at a Ministerial Conference on Antibiotic Resistance yesterday in the Netherlands. The Dutch currently hold the rotating Presidency of the European Union, permitting them to highlight some issues they care about in ministerial meetings.

“We should use antibiotics in a prudent and restrained way, both in healthcare and agriculture,” said Schippers. “This means that antibiotics should not be used for viral infections, only after proper diagnosis, only on prescription and under national surveillance. 

“And - when it comes to agriculture – it is my firm belief that we should ban the use of our last-resort antibiotics in animal husbandry all together. These precious medicines are our common heritage. We should treat them as such.”

The Netherlands realised six years ago it had a big problem of antibiotic misuse, added Schippers. “We were the number one of heavy users of antibiotics in Europe. We too made the mistake of using antibiotics rather than optimising the living conditions of our livestock.

“Only in three years’ time we managed to change the course drastically. And [we did it] without ruining the [agricultural] sector. We are still the number two in exports,” she added. 

Calling farmers to account

Dutch minister for agriculture Martijn van Dam explains that, in 2009, his country began asking veterinarians and farmers to register their antibiotic prescriptions and use. “This enabled us to call large-scale users to account. Overall, antibiotic usage in Dutch livestock farming has been reduced by 58 per cent since 2009,” said van Dam. 

Other governments urgently need to follow suit, he warned. 

As things stand, the EU says antibiotic resistance contributes to 25,000 deaths each year, and costs over €1.5 billion in healthcare expenses and lost productivity. 

The stakes are so high that the World Health Organisation has warned there will be deaths from minor surgery within 20 years if new antibiotics are not discovered. Armouries are bare: No new class of antibiotics has been discovered and brought to market since 1987.

This year, EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who also attended the conference, will set up a "One-Health AMR network" to group together experts from the veterinary and human health domains.“I am confident the Commission will be able to adopt, by the end of 2016, EU harmonised guidelines on the prudent use of antimicrobials in human medicine,” Andriukaitis told delegates. 

The EU, which launched a five-year plan in 2011, has put a figure of €800 million on its own efforts to fight antibiotic resistance. A spending review is scheduled for later in the year. 

The Commission has also tried to stimulate new research with the ‘Better use of antibiotics’ prize. This year, €1 million will be awarded to the maker of a rapid test which allows doctors to distinguish between patients with upper respiratory tract infections that require antibiotics and those that can be treated safely without antibiotics.

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