According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation ‘Africa Sustainable Livestock 2050’ Report (2017), as economies improve and demand for animal proteins increase, poultry meat and eggs are the single most important livestock products for which demand is predicted to grow by more than 800 per cent by 2050 in Africa.
On a global scale, 70 per cent of all antibiotics are used in animal farming and only 30 per cent are used directly in humans. With pressure on farmers to produce and sell more livestock products, poultry farmers often rely on antibiotics to prevent disease outbreaks in their flocks. Also, for decades, low levels of clinically important antibiotics have been administered to promote animal growth.
My colleague Sam Kariuki of the Kenya Medical Research Institute is concerned about the constant use of antibiotics, unregulated access to and irrational use of antibiotics that is causing selective pressure to build a large pool of resistant bacteria that counteract the drug effects, sometimes bacteria becoming resistant to multiple antibiotics that are commonly used.
The multi-drug resistant bacteria now termed as superbugs can then be transmitted between humans and animals through contact, food products, and the environment.
The big question now is; can ancient ninjas be used to tackle antibiotic resistance, and why would we need them, especially in Africa? Sharing the same interest on superbugs in the poultry industry, I believe that there is hope in an ancient treatment that was used in the Soviet Union long before the antibiotic era and is still being used in countries such as Russia and Georgia. These ancient ninjas are called bacteriophages.
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Many people have often asked what bacteriophages are and how they can be used in the poultry industry. The term ‘bacteriophage’ literally means “bacteria eater”; these are highly evolved and natural nanomachines that can kill their bacterial host with exceptional specificity.
Bacteriophages (phages) is a type of virus that attaches itself to a bacterial host, infecting it and thereafter uses the bacteria for its own benefit to multiply itself with the end result destroying the bacteria. Because of their high specificity, the phages destroy their bacterial host cells through a natural process without interacting with human or animal cells, making them harmless to people, animals and plants.
Researchers in different fields around the world including medicine and animal husbandry are realising the potential benefits of using phages in the war against bacterial diseases providing a solution that is natural, effective and safe.
The rise in superbugs in any livestock farming system could reverse the gains made by medical science rendering diseases that were once treatable untreatable, thus increasing the risk of fatalities from antibiotic-resistant infectious diseases, especially in Africa.
It is important to note that bacteriophages are the most abundant entities in the world and can be found anywhere provided that the bacterial host exists in the same niche.
It is imperative however to note that because phages are also mobile genetic elements, care should be taken in designing a phage product.
A good product should include a cocktail of different types of phages for the same bacterial strain to lower the chances of resistance emerging, getting phages that are broad host ranges so that one product could be used for many bacterial strains – a kind of one size fits all, cheaper and feasible methods of product delivery in farming systems taking into account our African setting and making sure that the phages in envisaged products do not contain any toxins.
Together with my colleague Dr Kariuki, we are currently isolating novel phages against Campylobacter and Salmonella from Kenyan poultry farms to provide a stable pipeline for future use as veterinary medicinal products.
Our major concern is the misuse or overuse of antibiotics in farming systems and what is disposed into the environment, and what antibiotic residues end up in the food chain. Whether in the environment or consumed by humans, antibiotic use and misuse will play a major contribution to the post-antibiotic era.
By bringing novel scientific solutions, Kariuki and I hope that other scientists and researchers across the African continent will adopt these solutions thus providing a non-antibiotic arsenal in collectively winning the war against antibiotic resistance.
Dr Makumi works at the International Livestock Research Institute