How to treat a hamster

The other week I developed Man Flu. I was quite buoyed when I announced it to the family at the dinner table and they were all brimming with remarkable sympathy. Then I realised that their sympathy was aimed at themselves, who would apparently now face a week of hell.

No matter. Being young and virile I shrugged it off after only a short week of intensive care and heroic battle and in such a fashion that nobody would have ever guessed I was ill. I struggled manfully to work each day and did all the househusband work expected of us these days whilst our wives are preoccupied with their coffee cards.

Then, I had a weekend on call. I’m not sure if it was the drama of the inevitable dropkicks (“My neighbour’s dog is barking, can you come out?”); or, as one of my colleagues lovingly said, “the stress of you donning overalls,” – but I had a sort of Man Flu relapse.

Not wanting to burden the family with it I again struggled on in silence. I was coughing my lungs up and it was obviously disturbing my wife’s sleep, so she insisted I see the doctor. Of course, being a vet I have a very strong grasp of medicine and infectious disease and one thing I do know is that the last thing you do is visit the medical specialist, at least not until you’ve exhausted every old tablet in the bathroom and, in my case, floating around my car.

Finally, under duress, and genuinely very ill, I went to the docs who prescribed … antibiotics. For a chest infection. And I got better in two days.

All of which brings me to the point of this missive. Antibiotic resistance is the new global warming. Except this seems remarkably more real and possibly more serious than a few months extra rain in England and the odd flood in Europe. We are entering, as the very erudite Aussie Stephen Page has put it, the post-antibiotic era.

Page is the new poster boy for sensible discussion on antibiotic resistance, despite being Australian. This in itself is no mean feat and why we should listen to what he says. The prospect of me drowning slowly in my own sputum simply because amoxicillin is no longer effective seems rather horrible, and just a little bit too close for comfort.

For over a year we have tried to persuade our farmers to have a goal of reducing their antibiotic use by 10 per cent year on year. Most of them have ignored us- but that doesn’t matter because at least it shifts the discussion from “vets as profiteering drug company poodles.” However, some of our (mostly larger) clients have indeed embraced this concept. And we have been measured on our ability to deliver to this target.

It’s quite a novel approach- it turns the tables on the argument that we just want to sell antibiotics; it allows us to raise the whole spectre of preventative medicine- a term that in New Zealand is as alien as saying the Wallabies have a good scrum- and it changes the focus onto management practices and other areas of control. And it also opens the discussion about antibiotic use and resistance.

More importantly, it might actually do some good. As a profession in New Zealand we seem to always to be on the back foot defending ourselves to farmers against some left-wing ideas we have, or some extortionate price we charge, or the mere fact that we expect to make a living from our job. So it’s refreshing to actually turn the tables on farmers and go in guns blazing.

What is their policy on antibiotic reduction? What do they do with their antibiotic milk? Why don’t they swab their overseas workers for MRSA? Do they even know how many antibiotic treatments they give in a year?

And here again is the great irony of our leading industry. I’ve said before that we collect no disease data- but it gets worse, because of course we collect no- or so limited as to be pointless- antibiotic use data. We have absolutely no idea what we do, whether it’s normal and whether we are getting better or worse.

Anyway, last season we joined forces with other clinics in the country and under the XLVets umbrella we started a project which, amongst much else, is monitoring and reporting antibiotic use dairy farms across the country. There are also other initiatives which are designed to determine antibiotic resistance patterns within the livestock industry.

So, for once on this side of the ditch, we are making some good moves in the right direction. I’m enjoying telling undergraduates that they will face a career without antibiotics. I’m having fun challenging farmers to take ownership of this issue. But most of all, I’m shit-scared of dying next time I get Man Flu because some idiot in Kurdistan used 10 weeks of amoxicillin to treat his pet hamster.