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Three tools which may help us fight bacterial infections

Antibiotics are vital to treat serious diseases, but antibiotic resistance is a major and growing concern threatening the health of humans and animals globally. It is estimated that if antimicrobial resistance (AMR) continues to rise at the current rate it could lead to 10 million deaths by 2050

To preserve their effectiveness in treating microbial diseases for future generations it’s critical we use antibiotics responsibly, only when we need them most. 

And the animal health sector is responding. By preventing disease from striking in the first place, we reduce the need for antibiotics. Below, we take a glimpse at a few of the ways industry is looking to help fend off infections.

1. Vaccinations –  the foundation of prevention 

Veterinarians use them day-in-day-out to protect animals from disease, but they have potential to play an even bigger part of the pathway to reducing antibiotics.

Vaccines are like a boot camp for the body’s immune system, preparing it to create the right defenses when it comes under attack.

Often made of a ‘dead’ or weakened version of a disease, vaccines are used to give the body a practice run at producing the right antibodies to fight a particular microbe (or infection). They may also be made of antigens, the proteins on the outside of microbes.

While the weakened disease won’t cause an infection, the body will still identify it as an enemy it needs to attack. Once the battle is over, the immune system will retain this knowledge in ‘memory’ cells. 

It means that if the microbe attacks in the future, the body’s immune system will ‘remember’ how to produce the right antibodies to fight off the infection. And crucially, it will be able to produce these fast enough to avoid a serious health threat.

Today, a variety of vaccines are available and are used on commercial farms and in companion animal care, as part of the veterinarian’s health toolkit to help prevent and reduce the spread of infectious diseases. But the labor costs attached to them and the potential impact on the animal’s immune system are sometimes barriers to use. Scientists are looking at developing new vaccines using innovations that could help to overcome these issues in future. 

2. Probiotics – supporting the natural defenses

Probiotics, often referred to as ‘good bacteria’, are increasingly being recognized as an effective feed additive, which could help to ease the use of antibiotics. This is due to the benefit they may have on gut health and the animal’s overall wellbeing. 

The gut is made up of a complex mixture of bacteria, so when the balance of gut bacteria is disrupted, it can result in the animal falling sick and lead to lower productivity. 

Probiotics are a live form of bacteria. They work by taking up room in the animal’s gut and using up food, leaving fewer available resources for the unfriendly bacteria so they cannot cause disease. And by helping to maintain the balance of good and bad bacteria, probiotics are believed to improve the animal’s health and performance, although scientists are still seeking clarity into their effectiveness.

But farmers are taking note. According to the USDA’s National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS), probiotics are used on nearly 30 percent of US feedlots with a capacity of 1,000 cattle or more.

3. Bacteriophages – targeted, viral tools 

Vaccines, probiotics and other tools are effective at preventing disease, but, they are not foolproof. Bacterial illness will still happen and antibiotics are the only available treatment. 

Discovering another treatment would be groundbreaking, which is why many researchers are exploring bacteriophages. Sometimes known simply as phages, these are a type of virus that infects and kills bacteria. In fact, the name ‘bacteriophage’ literally means ‘bacteria eater’. 

Because phages are a virus, they can’t live and reproduce alone, they need to eat first. They work by recognizing and attaching to a bacterial cell, then injecting it with their own DNA. Once the DNA is inside, the nutrients and components of the bacteria are used to form new copies of the phage. These hungry offspring then break out by releasing chemicals to destroy the host bacteria and go on to look for other bacteria to infect and feed on.

Experimentally, phage therapy has shown promising results to treat bacterial infection in animals. For example, when used in chickens infected with E.coli, bacteriophages protected the animals from respiratory disease .

But phages have limitations and their efficacy is uncertain in many situations. For now, when a bacterial infection strikes – antibiotics are essential for treatment.

Although these alternative measures above give animals an extra lifeline, antibiotics still ensure we can always treat the most serious antimicrobial infections and keep our animals healthy. 

View our Commitment to responsible use of antibiotics to find out how the animal industry is taking action.