On a sunny morning at the end of January last year, I was lucky. The road from my hotel to the Bhains Colony in Karachi does not have much traffic. We only need one hour to get there. Passing through a pile of rubbish, we were welcomed by a veterinarian – the only one who was a government employee – in his office located in an old animal hospital, built during the Raj and collapsed from the inside. The vet has a small house nearby, in the same dilapidated condition. Sanitation and cleanliness are not very suitable in Karachi.
Although I have read a little about the livestock colony in Pakistan, I did not realize how badly the whole system was regulated. Almost. The business section runs like clockwork. Intermediaries, agents, trucks and transporters deliver milk to the city with perfect punctuality. But when we went from one farm to another, the situation changed from strange to unbelievable. It is a rule free zone. Government veterinarians are proud to make their own medicinal ingredients to treat sick animals because existing drugs no longer function. He told us that he kept changing the formula without basis because after a while the cocktail became impotent. We meet with farmers who pay pharmaceutical agents who do not qualify in large quantities (all under the table) to inject their livestock with the latest medicines intended for humans. We saw the blood of sacrificial animals being transported to the nearest poultry farm and given high protein blood food for chickens. We see farmer boys, as young as 10 years old, working with cattle, injecting them with oxytocin to produce milk on demand. Some boys have a quota of how many buffalo must be injected in one hour.
All of this is no secret. People who have visited Bhains Colony will tell you a much clearer story. The people who work there will share their experiences in mixing antibiotics regularly with food. Those who deal with the business side will say that the government is always complacent and involved. It’s about money and business, not public health or animal welfare.
As we get closer to Eidul Azha, it may be worth reflecting on how our livestock are treated, what they eat, and what in turn, we feed ourselves. Data from poultry and livestock farms in Punjab and Sindh shows that, right behind China, we are one of the worst offenders in the world who have antibiotics in animal food (large amounts of antibiotics per kilogram of meat). The regulatory body has full hands and their minds are blank. When I asked, I found no one knew who was responsible for regulating animal feed. The presence of large amounts of antibiotics in feed is now given. No farmer has ever been fined for injecting a mixture of toxic hormones or antibiotics into his flock. A national action plan to limit the use of antibiotics is collecting dust in a filing cabinet somewhere in NIH.
So why is this relevant today, and why is it important? That’s important because antibiotic resistance in Pakistan is an unknown problem – which continues to damage our health infrastructure to the point of collapse. Many of our antibiotics do not function because of resistance. Because the way we handle animals we help create super. Because right at the time of Covid-19, antibiotic resistance can give a knock-out blow to vulnerable patients. Also because we create monsters that are impossible to be confined to our few resources, and are likely to exceed our limits. Most important, it’s important because we can change direction. We need more stringent laws regarding antibiotic use, surveillance and awareness. We should not play Russian roulette with our health, well-being and economy.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2020.
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