Kenyans are consuming meat and other animal based food products that contain high levels of dangerous antibiotic residues, a Healthy Nation investigation in collaboration with the University of Nairobi has revealed.
Samples of poultry, beef, eggs and milk from shops in Thika and Gatundu have tested positive for traces of commonly used antibiotics.
The tests were carried out at the pharmacology and toxicology laboratory at the University of Nairobi.
The startling discovery means Kenyans are consuming drugs they do not need through the meat they buy, hence exposing themselves to lifelong health complications, including cancer and resistance to medicine.
The harm is finding its way into Kenyan diets in the form of chicken, beef, and pork dishes. Regular consumption of the chemicals identified in the samples has previously been linked to cancer, allergies, and numerous other health complications.
The milk and egg samples, however, tested negative for these harmful chemicals.
But the risk is not confined to drug residues, as other studies by researchers at the University of Nairobi have shown that animal-based foods in the city contain highly drug-resistant disease-causing pathogens, including staphylococcus aureus, also known as Staph, and which has been linked to skin infections, boils, pneumonia and meningitis.
There is already growing epidemiological evidence in selected sites in Kenya that ferocious germs resistant to many types of antibiotics are finding safe havens in chicken, pork and beef, the most common meats in the country.
Prof James Mbaria, chairman of the Department of Public Health, Pharmacology and Toxicology at the University of Nairobi, says there are many sources of these harmful substances in the food Kenyans consume, but particularly implicates the imprudent use of antibiotics in farms.
As a result, the uptake of medicines used to treat such killer diseases as meningitis and pneumonia has increased threefold in the last five years. And the use of fluoroquinolones, which are used against tuberculosis and HIV-related infections, has shot up by 50 per cent over the same period.
The World Health Organisation terms these drugs as “the most important in human medicine” because they are the only arsenal left in our line of defence against diseases, but now their increased and unethical use in farms is making them ineffective in killing bacterial strains that attack humans.
A study in a Kilifi hospital in 2016 showed that Staph was 92 per cent resistant to Penicillin and other medicines, such as Erythromycin.
Another 2016 survey of foods in Nairobi eateries and meat processed in factories showed that many meat dishes contained Staph that was more than 90 per cent resistant to Penicillin, Ampicillins, and common drugs that are used to treat diarrhoeal diseases.
Also, traces of drugs such as Chloramphenicol — a broad-spectrum antibiotic that, due to its serious side-effects on humans, including damage to the bone marrow, is usually reserved for the treatment of serious and life-threatening infections like typhoid fever — have been found in foodstuff.
DAMAGES IN THE BONE MARROW
“The use of antibiotics in animals is one of the major drivers of antimicrobial resistance in the country, but there are also other dangers of having those subtle doses of medication in the human body,” says Prof Mbaria.
“Drugs such as Chloramphenicol have been linked to damages in the bone marrow and harm children as they settle in certain parts of their bodies when they are still in the mother’s wombs. They should not be in any food at all.”
For the latest test, Healthy Nation picked samples from Nairobi’s traditional meat sources of Gatundu, Thika, and Limuru, informed by an ongoing study by the Centre for Microbiology at Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri). Kemri’s samples came from Thika, Gatundu, Nyando, Kisumu, Kwale, and Kisauni.
Our lab test results — although based on basic science as they did not go into the quantification of the residues — come in the wake of concerns within the microbiology and veterinary community regarding unregulated use of antibiotics in farming.
Global Antibiotic Resistance Partnership, a project of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, has reported that 70 per cent of the antibiotics that are imported for use in the country are given to chicken, pigs, cows and other animals that eventually end up on dinner tables.
In 2016 alone, Kenya imported 5.2 million kilogrammes of antibiotics for use in veterinary practice. One in five of this medication was given to poultry.
“Farmers give antibiotics for prophylaxis — to prevent their livestock from getting sick — as well as to treat the animals when they get sick,” says Dr Robert Onsare, one of the researchers in the Kemri study.
He is worried that despite growing evidence that abuse of antibiotics in Kenyan farms is worsening our antimicrobial resistance, the country has never developed a mechanism to survey how livestock farms use the drugs.
That means information on which drugs are used, on what types of animals, for what reason, and in what quantities is not available, making it difficult to document the precise relationship between routine antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic-resistant infections in people.
NO PROFESSIONAL COUNSEL
Dr Juma Kisa Ngeiywa, who has just retired as the Director of Veterinary Services, has previously said that livestock owners, especially pastoralists, do not seek professional counsel when they use antibiotics on their animals.
It is, however, not hard to understand the inclination to use these drugs on animals, particularly for the small-time farmer who has a ready market to supply and a small stock to rely on.
Consider this, for instance: In Gatundu, small-scale farmer Mary Wangui recently decided to get into poultry farming as well as keep one cow to supplement her income.
Local farmers told her that she needed to start taking care of the chicks from day one, and so she says she gives antibiotics to her day-old chicks, “just in case they fall sick when it is cold”.
And at a commercial farm in Thika, animals are injected with regular doses of antibiotics even when they are healthy to promote growth. When they get sick, especially the cows, they are pumped with even more antibiotics.
The danger does not end there, as the handling of meat in Nairobi’s butcheries exposes it to even more pathogens. Prof Eric Fevre, a researcher of veterinary infectious diseases at the Institute of Infection and Global Health at the University of Liverpool and the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, says this makes an already bad situation worse.
As part of the Urban Zoo research project, which looks at all the possible windows that a pathogen such as E. coli gets on dinner plates, Prof Fevre advises that the contents of the gut of the animal should never come into contact with the meat. But abbattoirs scarcely observe these guidelines.
A growing middle class is, therefore, demanding more meat, but a weak public health system is not guaranteeing safe bites.
Data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries shows that Kiambu is among the top five producers of broilers, layers as well as milk and beef.
In 2016 alone, Kiambu produced 334 million litres of milk, 2.2 million kilogrammes of beef, and 2.7 million kilogrammes of poultry meet. The county also produces more than 10 million trays of eggs. The other counties producing a lot of broilers are Nyandarua, Murang’a, Nairobi, Machakos, Bungoma, and Kakamega.
In Nakuru, Dr Peter Lamuka, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi, tested milk samples in Ndundori and Olenguruone, some of the county’s major suppliers of the commodity. He found that 47 per cent of the milk had antibiotic residues higher than the recommended levels.
Dr Lamuka said that when he visited the farmers, he was appalled by some of the practices. For instance, farmers were not withdrawing their livestock from drugs before either milking or slaughtering them, as is recommended.
Experts advise that farmers should not sell or consume milk from a cow that has been under medication for at least three days.
“Some would give the antibiotics to the cow in the morning, milk it in the evening, and sell the milk to people,” said Dr Lamuka.
In some cases, neither the seller of the drug nor the farmer had the slightest clue of the dangers they were exposing the communities around them to. This points to an information gap that would have otherwise been plugged had the government taken veterinary services more seriously.
But that is not the case as in the 1990s the government stopped employing vets and privatised the clinical services that state veterinary surgeons gave, such as insemination, prescription of medicine to animals, and related duties.
Some went into private practice, others in research, while yet others quit the career altogether. As that happened, guidelines on antibiotic use in farms were not tightened, and currently their enforcement is haphazard as there is a shortage of practising vets.
Dr Indraph Ragwa, the registrar at Kenya Veterinary Board, says there are only 2,800 veterinary surgeons registered in Kenya, and 7,000 para-professionals who are trained in animal health, among them certificate and diploma holders in veterinary surgery or animal health.
Dr Nicholas Ayore, head of veterinary public health, says the shortage of vets has made it difficult to reinforce the measures in abattoirs and antibiotics use in foods.
Dr Ayore says that after devolution, the inspection of meat and abattoirs was transferred to county governments, with the exception of the 13 national slaughterhouses that export meat products to the European Union.
The danger: Startling discovery means Kenyans are consuming drugs they do not need through the meat they buy, hence exposing themselves to lifelong health complications, including cancer and resistance to medicine.
Bigger risk: Other studies by researchers at the University of Nairobi have shown that animal-based foods in the city contain highly drug-resistant disease-causing pathogens, including staphylococcus aureus, also known as Staph, and which has been linked to skin infections, boils, pneumonia and meningitis.
Wider fears: Our lab test results — although based on basic science as they don’t go into the quantification of the residues — come in the wake of concerns within the microbiology and veterinary community regarding unregulated use of antibiotics in farming.
Above is the laboratory report from the University of Nairobi’s department of public health, pharmacology and toxicology detailing the presence or absence of antimicrobial chemicals in meat, eggs and milk we obtained from butcheries near Nairobi. Despite growing evidence that abuse of antibiotics in Kenyan farms is worsening our antimicrobial resistance, the country has never developed a mechanism to survey how livestock farms use the drugs. That means information on which drugs are used, on what types of animals, for what reason, and in what quantities is not available, making it difficult to document the precise relationship between routine antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic-resistant infections in people.