A RECENTLY launched white paper entitled Time to Vaccinate - Looking Beyond Antibiotics makes very interesting reading. The paper is a collaboration between leading independent animal health experts which provides a comprehensive analysis of the scientific evidence in favour of preventative healthcare, including the potential for vaccination, to help reduce the use of antibiotics.

The report points out that anti-microbial resistance (AMR) is one of the most urgent problems of our generation. It is already the cause of 700,000 human deaths every year and this figure is projected to rise to 10 million each year by 2050 if the problem is left unresolved. That's more deaths than are currently caused by cancer.

AMR is the ability of microorganisms to survive or grow in the presence of an antimicrobial agent which is usually sufficient to inhibit or kill that species of microorganisms. This resistance comes about because microorganisms - like all living creatures - can adapt to their environment over generations.

Those which develop an adaptation which allows them to resist an antimicrobial drug, are those which survive. These go on to multiply, passing their resistant traits on to the next generation and eventually creating a resistant population. Although this is a natural phenomenon, there is evidence that inappropriate and excessive use of antimicrobials speeds the rate at which resistance develops.

The development of AMR lies behind the international drive to cut antimicrobial use. If the medical and veterinary professions can reduce the need for the use of antimicrobials, they will prolong the efficacy of these drugs.

Antibiotics are used across agricultural industries, but increasingly pressure is being applied to reduce reliance on these vital medicines, to maintain an effective treatment portfolio for generations to come. The industry is doing this without compromising animal health or welfare and by using a selection of management practices which focus on disease prevention strategies as an alternative to antimicrobial use.

These include high standards of bio-security to protect farms from incoming disease; good management and husbandry and hygiene practices to curtail the spread of infection within the farm; and high standards of animal welfare to promote general health and a strong immune response.

According to the report, key among the preventative measures is vaccination - the process by which the animal gains immunity or resistance to a particular infection.

The role and success of vaccination is well understood and has been extensively demonstrated in the field of human medicine. The immunisation vaccination provides has been described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as, arguably, the single most cost-effective preventive health intervention. WHO has also identified the role of vaccination in limiting the spread of antimicrobial resistance.

Polio, which has been all but eliminated around the world, is perhaps the most well-known example of a vaccination success in human health.

In agriculture too, there have been numerous sector-specific successes, one of which was recently seen in the campaign against Salmonella in the poultry industry, which began in the late 1980s and whose breakthrough came with the widespread vaccination of hens. This was driven by the British Egg Industry Council Lion Code of Practice which set out standards for flock bio-security and bacteriological testing and stated flocks must be vaccinated against Salmonella.

So successful has the campaign been that the Food Standards Agency recently revised its advice that children, pregnant women and the elderly could now safely eat raw or lightly cooked eggs produced under the British Lion Code of Practice.

The poultry sector is leading the way by stopping the prophylactic use of antibiotics. Over the period of 2012 to 2016 the UK poultry meat sector reduced its use of antibiotics by weight by a massive 71 per cent. Across the same period poultry meat production has increased by 11 per cent.

The pig industry has also made great strides in reducing their dependence on antibiotics. The sector - which has been blighted by porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) with its high economic cost to the industry - has now found effective methods of eliminating the PRRS virus using a vaccination plan together with high levels of on-farm hygiene and bio-security.

These and other farming success stories demonstrate that vaccination can significantly reduce the need for antimicrobial use when used as part of an improved management strategy, while creating healthy stock and driving forward efficiencies of production.

In October, Defra (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) reported that sales of antibiotics for use in animals in the UK had fallen to their lowest level since records began, exceeding a government target two years ahead of schedule.