The unfettered use of antibiotics to keep chicks healthy in poultry farms has led to a proliferation in bacteria, which are resistant to the best of drugs used for fighting infections, according to a new study.

An analysis carried out by the New Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), said the soil in and around poultry farms and even in faraway ones, where the litter is used as manure, are infested with dangerous germs, indicating the scary prospects of harmful pathogens spreading to humans.

“Antibiotic misuse is very common in the poultry sector. What makes the situation worse is the fact that the sector is also plagued with poor waste management,” said Chandra Bhushan, Deputy Director General, CSE.

As part of the study, CSE first tried to estimate the extend of antibiotic resistance in the poultry environment, and then sought to establish if the resistant bacteria move out of the farms through waste disposal.

Public-health experts have been expressing concerns over the ever-increasing incidence of deadly, disease-causing bacteria developing resistance to multiple antibiotic drugs.

Recently, a study conducted by researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, showed high levels of antibiotic resistance in effluent treated in the sewage-treatment plants in the Capital.

Analysts working with CSE’s Pollution Monitoring Laboratory tested 35 samples of soil and litter collected from 12 randomly picked poultry farms in nine districts in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. They also examined 12 samples collected from areas 10 to 20 kilometres away from poultry farms, and also where the litter is not used as manure.

Among the bacteria that they isolated were Escherichia coli (E. coli), Klebsiella pneumoniae (K. pneumoniae) and Staphylococcus lentus (S. lentus). While the first two are known to cause gastroenteric and respiratory infections, the third is commonly found to infect animals. The study found that 100 per cent of the E. coli, 92 per cent of K.pneumoniae and 78 per cent of S. lentus isolated from the poultry environment were multi-drug resistant.

A bacterium is said to have developed multi-drug resistance if it fails to respond to three or more antibiotic drugs. About 40 per cent of E.coli and 30 per cent of K. pneumoniae isolates were resistant to at least 10 out of 13 antibiotics against which these bacteria were tested for.

The NGO called for measures to prevent the spread of drug resistance from farms. Apart from regulating the use of antibiotics in poultry, there should also be a complete prohibition of the use of untreated litter and feed in aquaculture, said Bhushan.