LIBERAL Senator Bill Heffernan says a “superbug” initiated in China’s intensive poultry industry has now hit 19 countries and could already be in Australia; highlighting the urgent need for national action.
The MCR-1 “superbug” was first detected in China last year and causes bacteria to become resistant to colistin; a last line of defence antibiotic.
Senator Heffernan has raised previous fears about the rapidly spreading disease and its impact on the human race expressed further concerns with Australian Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Mark Schipp at Senate estimates hearings last month in Canberra.
Senator Heffernan said MCR-1 was thought to be confined to China but had reportedly been detected “all over the place” including in Canada, Denmark, England, Wales, the Netherlands, Portugal, France and Thailand.
He said MCR-1 had been discovered in bacteria from farm animals including; chickens, pigs, cattle, retail meat, chicken feed, pork and humans.
Dr Schipp stressed colistin - a polymyxin antibiotic - wasn’t registered for use in veterinary medicine in Australia but was a damaging antibiotic in human medicine that caused quite severe kidney damage.
“It is an antibiotic of last resort because there is little resistance to it but also because of the side effects that it has,” he said.
Senator Heffernan quoted a research paper prepared by his office which said the potential for MCR-1 to become a “global concern” depended on several factors: including colistin’s continued use in the veterinary sector, providing selective pressure both inside and outside China.
He said escalation of the disease also depended on; the stability of the MCR-1 positive plasmids and their ability to transfer to human pathogenic E. coli strains; and “population dynamics” across China's borders.
“China is one of the highest users of colistin in agriculture - why are they doing it when they know that this is the outcome?” he asked.
In response, Dr Schipp said it was “a cheap way of getting high levels of productivity out of poultry and to remain competitive at a great cost to the global community”.
Senator Heffernan also highlighted a January 2016 Bloomberg report that said a “superbug” fostered by one country's “loose practices” can arrive in another country in a shipping container of beef or in the gut of a traveller getting off a plane.
Dr Schipp agreed and said Australia had seen several reports of resistant infections in humans, either through tourism or travelling overseas for medical procedures and then returning to Australia.
But he said the current food code contained no standards for antimicrobial resistance and as a consequence there was no routine testing within Australia or at the border for imported food.
Senator Heffernan said under current international trade rules Australia was only required set up a testing program for imports, unless one existed for local produce.
But he said “we really need to get on with this and establish such a program”.
“The superbug could easily be spread to Australia and it may already be too late to prevent it arriving,” he said.
“What you have got to realise is that, if you think of all the tourists who are going to China and other places and consuming food, when they return to Australia their own gut flora may now contain superbugs and they will not know.”
Senator Heffernan said of the top 10 largest producers of colistin for veterinary use, eight were Chinese while Asia - including China - comprised 73.1 per cent of its use and 28.7pc is exported, including to Europe.
Dr Schipp said an independent review sponsored by the UK government published a report in December last year outlining global use and strategies on MCR-1.
He said the report recommended restricting medically important antibiotics and capping each country’s use, while also placing a quota of antibiotics used within agriculture, in each jurisdiction.
In terms of national programs, Dr Schipp said Australia didn’t import live ruminants or pigs which meant that avenue was “closed down” for spread of the disease.
He said Australia only imported chicken meat that’s been “retorted” and pig meat must be cooked before entry while the only poultry that’s imported is as hatching eggs.
“So through those biosecurity measures we are restricting entry into Australia,” he said.
“In terms of monitoring in Australia, we have commenced a pilot trial in the pig industry to look at antimicrobial resistance generally and we are hoping that that will also be able to look into the issue of whether there are any MCR-1 genes in Australian pork.”
Dr Schipp said he was also involved in a national strategy, launched in June last year, overseen by a steering committee chaired by the Department of Agriculture Secretary and includes the Health Department Secretary and Chief Medical Officer.
He said he and the Chief Medical Officer also co-chaired an advisory group of technical and strategic advisers represented also by the APVMA, FSANZ and other experts.
“They have connections to what is happening internationally and are able to provide advice on the best practice for us to adopt in Australia,” he said.