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Can we change our behaviour to prevent superbugs?

Antibiotic resistance makes essential antibiotics no longer effective. The invisible threat of antibiotic resistance is a health issue that urgently needs addressing by us all, from farmers to consumers as Alison Burrell & Áine Regan, Teagasc Research explained in Teagasc on RTE Brainstorm recently

As we've seen recently, changing people’s behaviour is really difficult - even change to protect your health and those around you. At the start of 2020, could you have imagined that something as simple as going to the gym or meeting up for a coffee suddenly can’t happen because of an invisible threat to your health? Without everyone understanding why we need to stay apart and feeling motivated to protect others, trying to change people’s routines would have been next to impossible.

Antibiotic Resistance

Similarly to Covid-19, the invisible threat of antibiotic resistance is a health issue that urgently needs addressing. Antibiotic resistance makes essential antibiotics no longer effective to treat diseases, making some surgeries or cancer treatments too risky to perform. An example of antibiotic resistance would be a superbug that you hear about spreading in a hospital. This risk has increased with so many antibiotics being used in ICUs due to Covid-19.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when we overuse or misuse antibiotics in animal health as well as human health and can be transferred between animals and people through the environment, direct contact and the food chain. The WHO reported that reducing antibiotic use in farm animals could reduce antibiotic-resistant bacteria in these animals by up to 39% - good news for them and us.

Antibiotics are essential for treating some diagnosed diseases in animals and their health and welfare would suffer without them. But in some farming sectors, antibiotics are used routinely to maintain animal health during the year. In 2022, new laws will be introduced by the EU to stop the blanket use of antibiotics as a preventative measure on farms and these will require changes to many farming routines around the country.

Farmer Change in behaviour

Behaviour change is hard and it’s challenging for farmers to change the routine way they manage the health of animals. Just as it was with Covid-19, the first step is for farmers to understand why they need to change their behaviour in the face of this invisible threat. Behavioural science is a type of science grounded in disciplines like psychology. It has played a key role during the pandemic to support the government in communicating effectively with the public about things like handwashing and social distancing. It can also help us to identify how best to support farmers to feel motivated to change how they use antibiotics.

Research tells us that lots of things influence antibiotic use on farms. Daily, monthly and yearly routines are important for farmers and changing these may be seen as risky to their animals’ health. Farmers have an emotional bond to their animals, as well as considering farm practices in terms of profit and productivity. A farmer’s social circle will also influence their farming decisions and a first port of call for advice for many farmers will be a vet, a trusted source of information. 

Vets have an important role

Vets have an important role to play in supporting and encouraging behaviour change amongst farmers and need to be equipped with the necessary skills. These skills can be developed through ‘motivational interviewing’ training for vets.

This is a way of communicating with clients that was developed by psychologists to help people change their behaviour. The practitioner communicates with their client using techniques that help them to weigh up the pros and cons of changing if they’re still ‘on-the-fence’, and find what motivates them to make positive changes. It will teach vets how to share their knowledge of antibiotic resistance and best farm practices in a collaborative way, rather than taking on a traditional ‘expert versus non-expert’ role which can in fact have the opposite to the desired effect. Instead, vets can help farmers to practically manage this new change, identify barriers they might come up against or concerns they have, see how it will fit into their routine and how they can get ‘down-off-that-fence’ to make some changes.

Food consumers role

But is it just the behaviour of farmers that needs to change? What about us as food consumers? A survey carried out with almost 1,000 people on the island of Ireland found that almost half of consumers are now more aware of antibiotic resistance and 43% are more aware of the connection between animal health and human health as a result of Covid-19. We need to start thinking about how we as a society can invest in and promote safer antibiotic use in food production, while also avoiding ‘antibiotic-free’ trends. Animals, just like humans, have a right to treatment when they are sick.

As we now know, change takes time, knowledge and motivation. When it comes to antibiotic resistance, there is an onus on all of us - healthcare professionals, vets, farmers, consumers and patients - to change. Just as with Covid-19, the challenge is now to make sure everyone is aware of the need and motivated for collective action to address the invisible, but very real, threat of antibiotic resistance.

Alison Burrell is a chartered health psychologist and post-doctoral researcher with TeagascDr Áine Regan is a Research Officer (Social & Behavioural Science) with Teagasc