Civil Society, Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Health

Antibiotics Toughen Bacteria on German Farms

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Mar 14 2012 (IPS) - The recent death of five prematurely born children in the northern German city Bremen as a result of infections acquired in the hospital has strengthened fears among environmental and health experts that massive use of antibiotics in industrial livestock farming is creating extremely resistant bacteria.

The children who died last December and earlier this year in Bremen, some 300 kilometres west of Berlin, were victims of infections with highly resistant bacteria, including the extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL). Similar infections have been detected in other hospitals in Germany, though these were not fatal.

The cases have raised renewed questions about lack of hygiene in German livestock farming, especially in industrial poultry farms, where thousands of animals are held in relatively small spaces.

The bacteria are believed to have been inadvertently brought into clinics by patients who had been in contact with contaminated poultry.

“Three days after the birth, the doctors announced to us that our baby had contracted an infection and was very ill, and could die,” Maik Stefens, father of a prematurely born infant at the clinic in Bremen told IPS.

“The doctors said bacteria in poultry was the most likely cause of the infection,” Stefens said. “Abuse of antibiotics in livestock farming was the actual origin of the problem.”

Stefens’s baby Niclas survived, but five infants died of similar infections.

In December, the death of three prematurely born infants forced local health authorities to launch an intensive investigation into hygiene conditions at the clinic, and to then order its complete renovation. Additionally, personnel received a crash course in hygiene.

The clinic was opened again in February, to be closed for good early March after two new-born babies died of infections with highly resistant bacteria.

Clinical studies confirm that the genetic structure of the ESBL bacteria found in poultry sold in markets across Europe is identical to that of bacteria in the infections detected in humans.

Poultry bred in industrial livestock farms across Germany is widely treated with antibiotics, regardless of the animals’ health.

According to the Robert Koch institute (RKI), the German central federal health institution responsible for disease control and prevention, 90 percent of all chickens sold in the country contain ESBL germs.

ESBL are lethal enterobacteria resistant to most antibiotics. They were first detected in 1983 – in Germany, due precisely to industrial livestock farming.

A study by the government of the federal state North Rhine Westphalia confirmed that 96 percent of all chickens bred in the state have been treated with antibiotics. The treatment kills most germs, but contributes to the emergence of others resistant to antibiotics.

“My most pressing fear is that by abusing antibiotics, we are actually breeding highly dangerous bacteria,” Wolfgang Witte, director of molecular diagnostics at the RKI told IPS.

Poultry farmers confirm that all animals at a farm are treated with antibiotics when one single animal shows symptoms of infection. “Otherwise, I would run the risk of losing the whole farm,” a farmer, who asked not to be identified, told IPS. “This is a risk I cannot afford, I would go bankrupt.”

The antibiotics are administered through drinking water to the population of the whole farm.

Such use of antibiotics has led to a high concentration of chemicals and of germs flowing into rivers with recycled sewage and wastewater. Bacteria and antibiotics have also been found in fields close to industrial livestock farms.

Reinhild Benning of the German environmental organisation BUND told IPS that many samples raised around a farm in an experiment last month contained ESBL germs. “The whole village near the farm is afraid of the infections,” said Friedrich Ehlers who lives in the neighbourhood of the farm. “We smell the stench of the farm and breathe the emissions every day.”

The problem goes beyond the presence of antibiotics and germs in the atmosphere. When contaminated meat is cooked at home, the germs do get killed. But it is likely that germs can pass to other foods like vegetables, which if eaten raw or only lightly cooked, can lead to infections.

Additionally, residues of poultry and other livestock industrial farms are recycled as fertilisers for agriculture. Such recycling spreads both germs and antibiotics, and brings them into the human chain food, even for people who avoid industrial livestock and prefer organic foodstuffs.

“This is such a scandal that we now cannot trust our own food,” Beate Stefens, mother of the infected child in Bremen, told IPS.

This is not the first food scandal in Germany. Last summer, 53 people died and more than 4,000 became ill as a result of infections caused by vegetables contaminated with Escherichia colia.

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