The government has been urged to open an investigation into illegal imports of veterinary drugs, after the number seized at the UK border increased dramatically last year.
The Directorate of Veterinary Medicines, the executive body that regulates medicines for animals, took over more of 40 different illegal drugs in the year to March 2021, compared to just one in 2019, one in 2018, and three in 2017.
Many of the packages were destined for residential premises and came from as far away as Australia, India, South Africa and Thailand. Some contained enough medicine for hundreds of doses.
It is a crime to import veterinary drugs without a license into the UK and while most drugs seized by border officials were not prohibited substances, many were prescription drugs that could pose a danger to public health if not used appropriately. responsible manner.
Among the seized drugs are hormones, steroids, and a number of different antibiotics intended for use on a wide range of animals, including dogs, horses, pigeons, and food-producing animals.
Cóilín Nunan, scientific advisor to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, a body made up of health and food organizations that aim to combat antibiotic resistance, said it had been clear for years that illegal imports were taking place, but not yet the true scale is known.
He said: “Illegal imports are a concern, particularly if it means that antibiotics are being imported and used without a veterinary prescription. It is particularly irresponsible to illegally import high priority critically important antibiotics or import drugs that are banned for all veterinary use in the UK. “
The numbers seized are extremely small compared to the total number of veterinary drugs prescribed in the UK, but as some were discovered during routine ‘spot checks’, there is no way of knowing how many illegal drugs are sneaking through. border controls.
Nunan added: “If the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has evidence that illegal imports of veterinary drugs are increasing, they should initiate an investigation to determine the magnitude of the problem and find out why this is happening, and how can it be stopped “.
One of the packages seized in 2017 contained enrofloxacin, which is not used in human medicine, but rather a class of antibiotics that are listed as high priority and critically important in human medicine.
The antibiotic, which is part of the fluoroquinolone family, is licensed for use in poultry in the UK, but there has been a voluntary industry-wide ban since 2016, although it is still widely available in other parts of the world.
A package seized in June last year contained doxycycline, another antibiotic that veterinarians avoid prescribing when possible, to help fight antibiotic resistance.
The president of the British Veterinary Association, James Russell, said that even a drug illegally brought to the UK is “too much”.
“These are the high priority critically important antimicrobials. We as a veterinary profession are working hard to stay away from them and protect them for human health.
“Antimicrobial resistance is a growing threat, and if left unchecked it could be one of the biggest threats to humanity in 2050. There is a key role for veterinarians, not just in the UK but everywhere, which is to be the guardians and custodians of the medicines, and we do it through a responsible prescription “.
Some drugs are more strictly restricted in food-producing animals to prevent them from entering the human food chain. In some cases, animals, for example dairy cows, must be removed from the food chain while receiving treatment, something that is generally closely monitored by farmers and veterinarians.
Defra denied there had been an increase in the amount of illegal veterinary drugs entering the UK, saying the increase in seizures is due to a closer working relationship between the Veterinary Drugs Directorate and the Border Force.
A spokesperson for the Veterinary Drugs Directorate said: “We work closely with the UK Border Force to ensure that illegal veterinary drugs do not enter the country. This includes reporting to operational centers across the UK to help them better identify and seize illegal veterinary drugs at the border.
“It is this close working relationship that has led to an increase in the number of illegal veterinary drugs seized, and we continue to work hard alongside them to eradicate such criminal practices.”
The Border Force said it was determined to crack down on illegal imports and that officers were highly trained to detect contraband.
It declined to comment on the effectiveness of its random checks or clarify how the packages were inspected, citing security, but said most of the checks were done according to levels of risk or intelligence.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism