Comment: Funds needed for disease defence

Skipton auction market was the unlikely venue for an election debate.
Skipton auction market was the unlikely venue for an election debate.
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AT THE Skipton auction mart they organise some fun events. I’ve seen plays there, a classical guitar recital and a top class comedian. They clear out the cows first of course. Then they tidy up a bit, put on the heating and the cattle ring becomes a stage.

What I’d never seen until I stood for the elections was a group of politicians being trooped out into the ring to be judged like the cows. It was a fascinating event.

After the livestock left, one by one the parliamentary candidates for Skipton and Ripon were given five minutes to impress the local farmers with their thoughts on the future of the industry.

The attention of the farmers was exceptional. Until the cows left. When the politicians arrived it began to waver a little. Unfortunately this time I was one of them. I can’t claim that the attention span improved much when I spoke. Except, I thought for one thing that did seem of interest: antibiotic resistance.

This is an issue of practicality and it is becoming an increasingly urgent one. Antibiotic resistance is going to put your life, and the life of your children and any animals you care for, at risk unless we do something about it.

The Chief Medical Officer has told us bluntly that: “While a new infectious disease has been discovered nearly every year over the past 30 years, there have been very few new antibiotics developed leaving our armoury nearly empty.”

For agriculture this represents a real crisis. It could be very hard to raise chickens, for example, if it becomes impossible to use antibiotics against outbreaks of diseases. Infection can spread rapidly amongst poultry and it is common to use antibiotics to combat this. There are also circumstances when dairy and beef farmers are grateful for their availability to tackle disease.

But because we have been using them for so long and so widely, bacteria have adapted. It only needs a dose to be delivered for the wrong duration or in the wrong concentrations for some of the bacteria to survive and for those that survive to be the ones that are best at resisting the antibiotic. With each passing year the bacteria that can resist our best antibiotics get more numerous and more widespread. We are now in danger of running to the end of the last forms of effective antibiotics and the next generation of alternative defences isn’t being researched and tested rapidly enough.

Antibiotics are pretty cheap and any alternatives cost a lot to develop and implement with many failures. It takes thousands of blind alleys being explored before the science that actually works is discovered.

We therefore urgently need the government to invest in a major programme of scientific research into alternatives to antibiotics. And when we do get good replacements we are going to need to use them more sparingly - on humans and animals - so that they last longer.

I feel fortunate that I was part of a golden period of history when there was a cure for human TB and I was most unlikely to die from scratching my finger. It seems remarkable that we have taken so little notice of a warning from the Chief Medical Officer that this era is now almost over.

It would be great if all the parties could agree that this is one issue which really does need tackling and which we need to find the money for. If we managed to do that then we could all console ourselves with the thought that our politicians might be boring our farmers to death but at least we weren’t exposing them and their animals to genuinely fatal risks.