KATHMANDU, Oct 8: When modern medicine first discovered antibiotics in the 1920s, it was described as an elixir of life and an agent against man´s premature death.
One hundred years later, however, antibiotics are tainting another elixir -- milk -- in a trend both dangerous to Nepal´s powerful dairy industry and the lives of its people.
According to an unpublished report, “shocking” levels of antibiotics are being found in local dairy products, as farmers self-administer this medicine to their livestock.
“We knew we´d find some antibiotics in our milk samples, but we never expected it to be this bad,” said Jeevan Prabha Lama, director general at the Department of Food Technology and Quality Control (DFTQC).
Over half of dairy products from Kathmandu, Pokhara, Bhaktapur and Kavre were found to contain a cocktail of antibiotics -- some at alarming rates for lovers of milk, cheese, and curd.
Nepal has no formal guidelines to limit levels of antibiotics in food, however, the DFTQC advises producers to follow EU guidelines of less than four parts per billion (ppb).
The study has found that antibiotics levels surpass the quantity stipulated by the EU guidelines. In Kathmandu Metropolitan City, contamination has reached nearly 300 ppb -- about 75 times the EU legal standard.
Levels of penicillin and other common antibiotics like amoxicillin are also alarming in dairy products coming from smaller producers in Lalitpur.
According to the IFCN Dairy Research Centre, over 1.1 million tonnes of milk is consumed yearly in Nepal.
The consequences are disturbing, said Lama. While a small dose of antibiotics can cure infection -- such as pneumonia -- in humans, long-term exposure makes our bodies resistant to a medicine designed to help us.
“People have been saying to me for a while now that their bodies have grown resistant to common antibiotics. They just don´t work the same on them anymore,” said Lama.
Antibiotics over-exposure is also linked to a myriad of health problems, such as chronic diarrhea, skin disease, urinary infections, and brain cell damage.
Dr Rameshwar Giri, a veterinarian specializing in dairy cows, said the antibiotics problem is due to a lack of farmer education on the hazards of antibiotics use in cattle.
“They don´t know that, if you feed antibiotics to cows, the medicine comes through the animal´s udder into the milk that we drink,” he said of the process.
Antibiotics are used worldwide in cattle management -- commonly to treat mastitis -- yet post-administration requires a period of quarantine to prevent milk contamination.
Giri said local producers are not only disregarding the necessary quarantine period, but are often administering antibiotics to their cattle without any veterinarian´s supervision.
He told Republica of one farm in Tanahun that was administering antibiotics to its 130 kamadhenu cows -- 60 of them lactating -- without supervision of a vet technician.
“The dairy technician had no sound knowledge of medicine at all. He was giving antibiotics to his dairy cows for mastitis like it was nothing at all,” said Giri.
There are also reports that farmers and dairy producers are administering medicine to cattle to increase dairy production; another side-effect of antibiotics exposure in cows.
Krishna Prasad Bastola, manager of the Dairy Industry Association (DIA), said the DIA is working to ensure that its farmers stick to an antibiotics code of conduct.
He agreed with Dr Giri that farmers were suffering from a lack of education on antibiotics use. They just “don´t know the consequences”, he said.
“We´ve been working to educate them that if they decide to use antibiotics in their animals, they shouldn´t sell the milk that comes from them for a week,” said Bastola.
“There´s also the lack of good hygiene practice among Nepali dairy producers. If they had better conditions for their cows they wouldn´t get mastitis to begin with.”
Jeevan Prabha Lama of the DFTQC said the issue goes beyond farmer education. “Because of religious purposes the farmers want to save the cow. They are sacred. So they will do anything at any cost to prevent health problems.”
She said insurance provisions are one possibility to assuage their worries, but that in the interim an investigation is needed into the general standards of the dairy industry.
“We don´t have a good milking system. Many farmers have to walk for hours with their fresh milk to sell it, so they add antibiotics to make sure it´s healthy for humans,” she said.
Activist group Animal Welfare Network Nepal (AWNN) is calling for a ban on the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on farm animals.
"We have a major health crisis at hand. We hope that the Ministry of Health recognizes the importance of these recommendations”, said Pramada Shah, chair of AWNN.
Lama said the issue highlights a greater problem with Nepal´s pharmaceutical industry, with drugs easily bought over the counter without prescription or medical supervision.
“I just don´t think our milk is safe in Nepal. From a quality perspective, it´s fine with the levels of fat and nutrients, but from a medical point of view it´s a disaster.”
She said people should avoid milk, cheese, and curd brought into the city from rural areas, as well as products known to originate from small unregulated producers.