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Addressing antimicrobial resistance in poultry farming


A team of IDRC-supported scientists in Kenya is testing a non-antibiotic treatment for bacterial diseases affecting poultry. 

The researchers, from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, are investigating the impact of bacteriophage solutions on Salmonella strains collected from poultry farms and slaughterhouses in Kenya. 

Bacteriophages, or phages, are viruses found in natural and human-made environments that infect and replicate within bacteria and can be used as an alternative to antibiotics. 

As in many countries, poultry farmers in Kenya use antibiotics to treat bacterial infections to improve growth and production of poultry. However, antibiotics have several disadvantages. 

An estimated 75% of antibiotics administered are released into the environment, contributing to the emergence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). A growing concern, AMR poses increasing threats to both poultry and humans, making the search for alternatives to antibiotics particularly urgent. 

“So far, we have been able to select a few phages that will be included in the final phage cocktail product,” said Angela Makumi, a medical microbiology expert who is part of the ILRI project team. “However, in order to understand the behaviour of phages and the control of Salmonella in chicken, the cocktail is currently in its trial stage,” said Makumi, adding that phages have the ability to target specific bacteria, replicate within them and eventually kill their susceptible host. 

Before it can be disseminated to farmers, Makumi said that more time was needed to study the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of the phage cocktail and to start seeking regulatory approval from Kenya’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate. 

Implemented in collaboration with Université Laval, the project is part of the Innovative Veterinary Solutions for Antimicrobial Resistance (InnoVet-AMR) initiative, which is aimed at reducing the emerging risk that antimicrobial resistance in animals poses to global health and food security.  

A recent study by WHO estimated that in 2019, about 1.3 million deaths globally were attributed to antimicrobial-resistant bacterial infections. Africa has the highest mortality rate from such infections, with 24 deaths per 100,000 attributable to AMR. 

Misuse of antibiotics prevalent among poultry farmers 

Zachary Munyambu, a poultry farmer in Kenya’s Kiambu County, said that antibiotics are vital for controlling diseases and ensuring the healthy rearing of chickens. However, the drugs are expensive and contribute to the high cost of production in poultry farming.  

Munyambu, who is the coordinator of the Kiambu Poultry Farmers’ Cooperative Society, said that he spends about 12,000 Kenyan shillings (CAD130) every month on antibiotics for his 3,000 birds, which is not sustainable. “Getting an alternative method of disease control and prevention will be a great relief for poultry farmers as it will help to bring down the cost of production,” Munyambu said. 

Statistics from Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development show that poultry farming represents approximately 30% of the country’s total agricultural contribution to the Gross Domestic Product.  

A report released in 2021 by World Animal Protection found that dairy and poultry farmers are the most frequent consumers of antibiotics. It indicated that self-prescription, failure to complete prescribed doses and sharing antibiotics were prevalent among the farmers. 

No costly waiting period with use of phages 

Munyambu explained that a farmer is supposed to wait seven to 14 days after giving the antibiotics to a chicken before selling or consuming the produce. However, many farmers opt to sell the bird regardless of when they used the antibiotics because they do not want to take on  losses. 

“If you have used the antibiotics on the birds, you should throw away the eggs. For example, a farmer who has about 20,000 birds may be forced to throw away about 600 trays per day. This is not possible and does not make economic sense, and even the disposal of the eggs will be a problem,” said Munyambu. “Most farmers just go ahead and sell their produce, oblivious of the health risk they are posing to human beings who will consume the produce,” he added. 

With phage therapy, however, there are no withdrawal periods and farmers who use phages can sell or consume the eggs or meat, according to Makumi.  

InnoVet-AMR is a four-year, CAD30-million partnership between IDRC and the UK government’s Global AMR Innovation Fund, part of the Department of Health and Social Care. 

Learn more about the InnoVet-AMR initiative