The discovery of campylobacter resistant to fluoroquinolone and tetracycline antibiotics in poultry flocks in New Zealand has led to reports of the emergence of a new resistant “superbug.” The claims, however, have been swiftly rejected by the local poultry industry, which has accused the press of scaremongering.

The word superbug makes for a great headline and grabs reader attention. However, while it’s true that the public needs to think more about antibiotic use and misuse, offering facts and context would be far more valuable in protecting public health and preserving antibiotics to fight bacterial infections. 

While no one will welcome this latest discovery, as the Poultry Industry Association New Zealand (PIANZ) points out, the usual treatment for campylobacter infection for humans is erythromycin - not fluoroquinolones or tetracycline - to which campylobacter has not become resistant in New Zealand.

Responsible monitoring

The emergence of the resistant bacteria came to light as part of ongoing monitoring and testing of poultry flocks, initiated by the poultry industry and Massey University to identify, investigate and manage emerging issues. The monitoring was part of continuing studies to look for any antibiotic resistance.

The finding was, however, unprecedented in New Zealand and, for that reason, PIANZ notified the country’s Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) immediately and is continuing to work with MPI and the Ministry of Health.

Yet, the press has reported “alarm” among doctors following the “discovery of a superbug in chicken that has jumped across to infect people around New Zealand,” and went on to say that, while it was not clear how the bacteria had become resistant, it was possibly due to DNA mutation or through chicken feed being “pumped with antibiotics.”

I’ll leave you to decide how helpful such comments are in educating and protecting the public but, as PIANZ has pointed out, fluoroquinolones have never been used in the country’s poultry flocks, and tetracycline is used on a very limited basis for therapy only in breeding birds and under veterinary supervision.

Tetracycline is so rarely used, in fact, that there have only been two treatments in breeder flocks over the past 18 months.

A causative link between this use and the resistance has not been proven, hence the reason for joint efforts to continue working on a risk profile.

No additional risk to consumers

PIANZ has stated that it is backed by regulatory authorities and experts and is confident that the antibiotic-resistant strain of campylobacter poses no additional risk to the public.

And, as for the term superbug? Antimicrobial consultant Stephen Page has said that the strain is not a superbug, defined as a bacteria with very few, if any, treatment options, and that, internationally, this resistance is not unprecedented. As for jumping across to infect people around New Zealand, according to Page: This simply has not happened.