By: Sarah Knapton

Cóilín Nunan, Scientific Adviser to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said “Despite scientists saying that resistance to this last-resort antibiotic is likely to be spreading from farm animals to humans, it still remains completely legal in the UK and in most EU countries to routinely feed colistin to large groups of intensively farmed animals, even when no disease has been diagnosed in any of the animals. 

“We need the government, the European Commission and regulatory bodies like the Veterinary Medicines Directorate to respond urgently. 

“The routine preventative use in farming of colistin, and all antibiotics important in human medicine, needs to be banned immediately.” 

Since the Chinese discovery of mcr-1 in November, scientists around the world have been re-examining their collections of bacteria from farm animals and humans for the gene. 

British government scientists found the mcr-1 gene in E. coli from two separate pig farms, in one stored E. coli from a pig, and in three E. coli from two separate patients. 

The E. coli from the human patients were also resistant to the critically important cephalosporin antibiotics. 

The colistin gene was also found in ten human salmonella infections and in salmonella from a single imported sample of poultry meat . The earliest British positive sample was a salmonella from 2012. 

Public Health England said that the risk to public health was low and advised people to make sure food was cooked properly. 

Professor Alan Johnson, head of the Department of Healthcare Associated Infection (HCAI) and Antibiotic Resistance at PHE, said: “The mcr-1 gene, recently identified as a cause of resistance to the antibiotic colistin, has been found in a very small number of samples of bacteria – 15 out of 24,000, from humans and food tested in the UK. 

“Our assessment is that the public health risk posed by this gene is currently considered very low but is subject to ongoing review as more information becomes available. The organisms identified can be killed by cooking your food properly and all the bacteria we identified with this gene were responsive to other antibiotics, called carbapenems. 

“We will monitor this closely, and will provide any further public advice as needed.” 

In the past few weeks, the resistance gene has also been found in Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and in several Asian and African countries. 

Recently 20 senior representatives from health and medical organisations co-signed a letter, calling on the UK Government and European Commission to put an end to routine, purely preventative antibiotic use in groups of healthy animals. 

UK veterinary and farming sectors have agreed to temporarily limit the use of colistin, but no action has been taken by regulators to stop routine mass medication with the antibiotic. 

A Freedom of Information request submitted by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics has established that 837kg of colistin were sold for use in British farm animals in 2014, whereas just 300kg are used per year in human medicine.

Originally Published: The Telegraph