New antimicrobial resistance doc shows the good — and the scary

Video highlights the gains that have been made and reasons why the fight isn’t over

Prevention is better than treatment, says Alberta rancher Kym Andrew, who is featured with husband Buster in the documentary.

If you’ve ever worried about superbugs and want to scare yourself, check out a new documentary from an unexpected source: the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association.

Early in the 28-minute video — a largely upbeat and lushly filmed doc about antimicrobial resistance — is a clip from the Harvard Medical School.

It shows an experiment conducted in a huge 2’x4’ petri dish.

“There are nine bands … with different amounts of antibiotics,” says the matter-of-fact voice of the narrator. “On the outside (band) there’s no antibiotics. Just inside that there’s barely more than E. coli can survive, inside of that there’s 10 times as much, then 100 times and then in the middle band, there’s 1,000 times as much antibiotic.”

If you think a ten-fold or hundred-fold lethal dose — much less a thousand-fold one — would stop the E. coli, you’d be wrong. And if you think it would take a heck of a long time for bacteria to overcome that thousand-fold mega-dose, you’d be wrong again.

The time-lapse photography shows the E. coli spreading and briefly halting at the zone where the antibiotic level goes up. But quickly a few “mutants” penetrate the ruler-edge border, multiply with abandon and quickly reach the next band. And then breach it.

“After about 11 days, they finally make it into one thousand times as much antibiotic as wild E. coli can survive,” says the narrator.

Stills from this Harvard Medical School video show the incredible ability of organisms to overcome staggeringly high doses of antibiotics. In the left photo, E. coli has colonized the outside bands of a large petri dish where there are no antibiotics — but mutant strains are beginning to spread into the adjacent bands treated with a normally lethal dose. In the middle photo, a subset of those initial mutants is overcoming the bands with 10x lethal dose. In the right photo, the 100-dose bands are largely overcome and the band with 1,000 times the dose needed to kill normal E. coli is being invaded. photo: Raised With Care: Stewards of the Land

Having set that dramatic stage, the video — called Raised with Care: Stewards of the Land — shows what’s being done in Alberta to reduce the use of antimicrobials. It features several veterinarians, mostly speaking while visiting farms they serve.

“We wanted to highlight the relationship between veterinarians and producers, we wanted to come up with messaging that could apply to a wide variety of people,” said Jocelyn Forseille, assistant registrar of the veterinary medical association.

The documentary will also help consumers understand those in the livestock sector are using antimicrobials responsibly and with oversight, said Dr. Duane Landals, former head of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

Landals, who is featured in the documentary, was long involved in efforts to reduce antimicrobial use in animal agriculture. Since December 2018, only vets can prescribe medically important antimicrobials and only when a Veterinary-Client-Patient Relationship has been established.

The main message of the video is the importance of antimicrobial stewardship, and that it is a continuous process, said Landals.

“The first step is realizing that antimicrobials are very useful tools, and we need them in certain circumstances,” he said. “However, we need to take care of them if we want continued access to them.

“What are all the things we can do as veterinarians? What are the things we can do as livestock producers to prevent the use of antimicrobials in the first place?”

Prevention is the key, Kym Andrew of Rafter 17 Ranching says in the video.

“A healthy herd is the cheapest, most economical herd to have,” she says “If you can prevent an illness with a vaccination versus having to treat it with an antibiotic, you’re going to be better off in the long run.”

The video, which was funded by the province, says the livestock sector has been proactive, a view shared by Landals.

“Issues arise and we identify them and we resolve them,” he said. “I think that’s a good-news story. The industry was highly criticized for the use of antimicrobials and we’ve made giant strides in that.”

But as the Harvard experiment shows, the ability of organisms to overcome antimicrobials is fierce.

“My main message is that antimicrobial stewardship is important for all of us — whether it’s human health or animal health,” said Dr. Simon Otto, a veterinarian and an epidemiologist who is also featured in the documentary.

“We have done a lot of good work in animal health. There’s been a lot of great research done over the last 10 to 15 years to understand antimicrobial resistance in animal health and how antimicrobial use in animal health can impact public health.”

But the threat of resistance is unrelenting and so, too, is the need to continue to lessen reliance on medications, he added.

“The reality is that stewardship is something we always need to have front of mind as we move forward with this,” said Otto. “We need to constantly look at how we’re doing things, to make sure we are using drugs in the appropriate manner.

“For producers, stewardship is taking collective responsibility in society for antimicrobials as a precious resource.”

The free documentary can be found on Vimeo.

About the author

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Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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