Quacks and Chemists Drive India's Drug Resistance, Ministry Says

  • Agriculture ministry seeks ban on non-therapeutic drug use
  • List of antibiotics for proposed ban sent to health ministry

Doctors, unlicensed medical practitioners and illicit drug sales are the main culprits behind antibiotic resistance in India, the country’s agriculture ministry said in a statement that shifted blame for the growing public health problem away from veterinarians.

The use of antibiotics in veterinary medicine “is not a sole cause of drug resistance,” said S.K. Dutta, assistant commissioner of the department of animal husbandry in the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. Still, his department is trying to reduce the use on farms of antimicrobial medicines for promoting animal growth and other non-therapeutic purposes, he said.

A months-long Bloomberg News investigation of poultry-raising practices on farms supplying India’s biggest chicken companies indicated that farmers routinely gave antibiotics to their chickens via feed, water and injections. That included critically important medications the World Health Organization says should be safeguarded to prolong their efficacy in people.

Interviews with farmers indicated that the drugs, permitted for veterinary use in India, were used to prevent -- not treat -- disease, a practice linked to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

‘Human Doctors, Quacks’

“The main cause of drug-resistance is indiscriminate use of antibiotics by the human doctors, quacks and easy access of antibiotics through chemist shops without prescription,” Dutta said in a letter. It followed three Bloomberg stories last week on the use of antibiotics on Indian poultry farms and the declining efficacy of a last-resort drug.

Dutta’s department has asked the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to prohibit the non-therapeutic use of a list of antimicrobial medicines, he said, without identifying the medicines on the list. Both the assistant commissioner and department secretary, Ashok Kumar Angurana, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking a copy of the list.

Responsibility for drafting and enforcing rules on drug use lies with the health ministry and Drug Controller General of India, Dutta said in the letter. Animal husbandry in India is governed at the state level, meaning it is “the primary responsibility” of state authorities to implement rules, he said.

Cipro, Colistin

Farm logbook entries and drug delivery receipts indicated that farmers were instructed by chicken companies to use antibiotics such as levofloxacin and ciprofloxacin -- both prohibited for use in poultry in the U.S., European Union, Australia and Canada.

Of the 14 farms visited in one of India’s biggest poultry districts in southern Telangana state, three farmers said they used colistin -- the last medicine available in some cases to treat bloodstream infections in newborns. Three veterinary supply stores in the district also named combinations of colistin, ciprofloxacin and another antibiotic among their best-selling drugs. 

If insufficient time has lapsed before an animal administered antibiotics is slaughtered, residues of the drug can remain in the meat. In some cases, the antibiotics can still be biologically active even after cooking. 

Regulators in India mandate a 28-day withdrawal period, unless the manufacturer specifies a shorter time on the drug’s label. That rule is sometimes flouted: two farms were advised to give their fowl antibiotics within a week of the birds being slaughtered.

‘It is Alarming’

“It is alarming,” G. Santhanarajan, director for food safety at the Consumer Association of India, said in a March 30 e-mail following the Bloomberg reports. “The problem of antibiotic residues is prevalent in our country, but the knowledge about their presence in day-to-day foods is not well understood and addressed at all.”

The Indian government doesn’t collect data nationally on the volume of antibiotics used in either animals or humans. It has a list of important drugs whose sale requires pharmacists to retain details of the prescription in a register for three years. The measure is primarily aimed at human medicine and authorities only regulate a few of the antibiotics commonly used in livestock.

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