There has been much discussion for over a year concerning the new veterinary medicines regulations being introduced to farmers in Ireland and across the EU.
The focus of these discussions has been on rules surrounding antiparasitics (include wormers, flukicides and pour-ons),primarily on the requirement to obtain a prescription to purchase such products, along with rules for merchants on how products can be displayed in their stores.
The introduction of new antiparasitic rules has been deferred until June 2022 and will be touched on again later in the article.
These discussions overshadowed the second equally important part of the regulations covering antimicrobials (include antibiotics, antiprotozoals and antifungals) with these largely flying under the radar.
Many farmers are unaware that these rules have applied since 28 January 2022.
It appears to be a similar situation across veterinary practitioners, with Donal Lynch from Tullamore Veterinary Clinic commenting on last week’s Irish Farmers Journal livestock series webinar that vets do not yet know exactly how the new regulations will work at farm level.
The new regulations were addressed at the recent Teagasc lowland sheep conference by Caroline Garvan, superintending veterinary inspector at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
Caroline discussed the regulations in light of their implications for sheep farmers.
She started off by giving a background on where the regulations had stemmed from, citing that they are linked to the EU’s Farm to Fork strategy and a real emphasis on producing food in a sustainable manner.
“This specific regulation, which is specific to veterinary medicine, seeks to promote better availability of veterinary medicines through harmonisation of the supply chain, but from your perspective as sheep farmers, there is a very strong focus in the new regulation on antimicrobial resistance.
“There is also a strong focus on responsible prescribing by your vet, but also on responsible use by yourselves.
“There is also a reference to restricting certain antimicrobials to human use only and this is to protect human health.”
Therefore, the key driver in the legislation, according to Caroline, is to protect animal health and welfare, along with human health, with these joined by environmental health under a ‘one health’ concept.
The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a greater light on this area, but this focus has been growing, with 75% of all new human diseases over the last 25 years stemming from animals (zoonoses).
What the changes mean
The first significant change in terms of antimicrobials is that prescriptions will only be valid for five days, compared to the previous regime where prescriptions were valid for up to 12 months.
“When we talk about antimicrobials, what I mean is antibiotics, antifungals and antiprotozoals.
“Antiprotozoals are the medicines you use to treat things like coccidiosis, cryptosporidiosis and also toxoplasmosis causing abortion.
“Our antibiotics, as you will be well familiar with, are used to treat bacteria so the like of E coli.”
Caroline outlined that the change to a five-day validity period does not mean that you only have five days to use the medicines and that this only relates to the time period in which the prescription needs to be used.
“The treatment period will be whatever the vet has prescribed on the prescription but there is an urgency if you like to get the prescription filled within the five days,” she says.
The validity period for all other prescription-only medicines, which now include antiparasitics, will remain at up to 12 months.
Caroline said there are a lot of changes in the legislation surrounding veterinary behaviour and what vets can do. This, she says, is to drive home responsible use of antimicrobials and reduce the overall use of antimicrobials.
“So what this legislation is saying is that vets can now only prescribe after clinical examination of the animal or a proper assessment.
“Now this does not mean that the vet has to come out every time you have a sick ewe or lamb, but the vet will have to make a judgement call as to the appropriateness of prescribing and this proper assessment has been reviewed by the Veterinary Council of Ireland as all vets have to follow a code of conduct and in that code they have been advised as to what constitutes a proper assessment.
“Having records or having a proper conversation with the farmer – this will allow the vet prescribe so you do not have to have a clinical examination of every animal.”
Caroline says it is in everyone’s interest that the vet has enough knowledge of the situation to make a proper assessment, get an effective disease treatment and create a better outcome.
The next aspect is that vets have to be able to justify prescribing the relevant antimicrobial.
“They have to be able to demonstrate that it was correct to prescribe oxytet, or whatever, for the sheep in question.
“So there is a particular responsibility coming on to the vet and this will obviously impact on yourselves.”
The next aspect of the regulation is that vets can only prescribe the volume that is deemed as required to treat the disease.
“This is to cut down on maybe overuse of antibiotics in particular, so they [vets] can only prescribe for the disease that is there and the amount needed to treat the disease.
“This Department will allow for a small quantity of medicines to be kept on your farm and this is at the vets discretion.
“The vet will decide how much you can keep on-farm, but we are not trying to say you can’t have any medicines on-farm because we understand the practicalities that you may need to treat an animal in the middle of the night or whatever and you do need to protect sheep health and welfare.
“What we do not want is bottles and bottles being kept on farm.”
Focus on antibiotics
There is also a particular focus on the use of antibiotics to prevent disease. Caroline outlines that the legislation states that this can only occur in exceptional circumstances.
“There may have been practices where it was routine to give a lamb a shot at birth of something that is no longer allowed – it is only in exceptional circumstances where there is a particular risk.
“And the same thing if you are treating a group of animals where one is sick, the vet has to justify that there is a high risk of the spread of the disease among the rest of the sheep and also have a diagnosis.”
Caroline stresses that this is designed to cut down on the overuse and misuse of antibiotics.
There will be a list of all antibiotics prohibited for use in animal health.
Caroline adds that there is nothing currently on this list that is critical to use for animal health and that health and welfare will not be compromised as a result.
Highest priority critically important antibiotics – what are known in the medical world as HP-CIAs – include certain groups of antibiotics that Caroline says we might know as the ‘stronger’ antibiotics.
They are used when the first line of antibiotics have not worked and as drugs of last resort in human health.
“The message that is now coming through is that they cannot be used randomly in animal health.
“They cannot be used as first line treatments and there is a list of these particular antibiotics up on our website [www.agriculture.gov.ie] that we can no longer expect as farmers that vets will prescribe as first line treatments.”
To use such drugs, vets must follow criteria including certain diagnostic testing before they can use them.
Caroline says the reality is that first line treatments should be working in most cases and there shouldn’t be a need to use these stronger antibiotics.
She says that they are generally more expensive, but leaving this aside, they are hugely important in human health.
Responsible use of antibiotics
The Department of Agriculture has developed a document in collaboration with Teagasc, the IFA and Veterinary Ireland, which deals with the responsible use of antibiotics.
Caroline outlined to farmers that they should follow the six Rs of prudent antimicrobial usage.
Summary of changes