Farm vaccine use rises in bid to cut antibiotics further

Vaccination of the UK’s calves and sheep against livestock diseases has risen to one of the highest levels in seven years.

The rise in agricultural use is being put down to a better understanding among farmers of the role good welfare and husbandry plays in helping reduce the risk of disease spread, and therefore the need for antibiotic treatments.

This is despite a 40% fall in sales of antibiotics for farm animals in the past five years, which has made the UK among the lowest users in Europe.

The data, contained in an upcoming report from the agricultural levy board AHDB, shows almost 10 million doses of vaccine were sold for use in cattle in 2018.

Derek Armstrong, lead vet from AHDB, says the big rise has been in vaccines to protect against pneumonia in calves, a condition many vets would otherwise have to treat with antibiotics.

“Sales for this have risen 35% since 2011, with two fifths of all calves protected in 2018. Vaccines for another lung condition, rhinotracheitis, have also gone up by 50% over the same period,” he explains.

“Other good news is that one in five breeding cows now gets vaccinated to reduce the risk of her calf contracting enteritis: protective antibodies are passed to the calf as it drinks its mother’s colostrum shortly after birth.”

The UK sheep sector also performed well in 2018, seeing the highest uptake of vaccines in over six years, with almost 39 million doses sold.

Dr Fiona Lovatt of the Sheep Antibiotic Guardian Group says that for the first time since 2012, over two-thirds of all sheep which should be vaccinated against a range of important ‘clostridial’ diseases, were vaccinated; half of sheep were also vaccinated against Pasteurella, bacteria which cause pneumonia and sudden death.

“This is good news as we try to shift behaviour away from treating disease, to planning ahead to prevent disease and protect the flock,” explains Dr Lovatt.

“Despite issues with vaccine supply, the number of ewes vaccinated against diseases that lead to miscarriages has also steadily increased since 2013 – although further uptake would increase the number of live lambs born significantly.”

She adds that although sales of foot rot vaccine had been steadily climbing since 2013, there was a small drop in uptake of the vaccine from 15% of breeding animals in 2017 to 13% in 2018.

“Foot rot vaccination is one of the important elements of the sheep sector’s strategy to control lameness, and a key target for antibiotic reductions. Vaccine use should be considered if there are more than 2% of the flock lame with foot rot at any one time.”

Professor Mark Fielder from Kingston University, also president of the Society for Applied Microbiology, says the news of the increase in vaccine sales in the cattle and sheep sectors is to be widely welcomed.

“This news is timely as it highlights the potentially positive steps being taken by the UK agricultural industry to further limit the use of antibiotics and so help protect the drugs we have left in use.

“Vaccines are established and effective medicines that have worked well in agriculture and human medicine in the past, with some diseases such as Rinderpest and Smallpox being eradicated globally.

“This report emerges at a time when our status in human medicine has slipped with regard to measles following a fall in vaccination uptake. Vaccines have undoubted positive effects and are efficient medicines that have helped to prevent diseases globally. Their use and this report should be celebrated,” he says.

For more technical information on this announcement, please visit the website. Summary tables from the report can be found here.