The growing demand for food produced by farm animals has led to an increase in the amount of antibiotics used for animal growth and disease prevention. Despite the eagerness of the food and agricultural industry to meet this demand, unrestricted use of these antibiotics can cause an increase in the rate at which drug-resistant superbugs are spreading. In order to mitigate the adverse consequences of the use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently issued a set of guidelines to restrain the use of such antimicrobials.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – a worldwide threat

As stated in a 2016 British report titled Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, over a million lives have been lost globally due to drug-resistant strains of bacterial infections each year. An earlier research commissioned by the Review indicated that failure to curb this resistance may result in this toll exceeding 10 million each year by 2050. Undoubtedly, the dissemination of such bacteria due to the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals will only make this worse, as they can be transmitted to humans via food and other routes of transmission.

The new recommendations made in the guidelines issued by the WHO are expected to help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics that are important for human medicine by decreasing their excessive use in animals. Part of the recommendations is to restrict the use of “all classes of medically important antimicrobials in food-producing animals for growth promotion” as well as those used “for prevention of infectious diseases that have not yet been clinically diagnosed.”

“A lack of effective antibiotics is as serious a security threat as a sudden and deadly disease outbreak,” says Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO. He further added, “Strong, sustained action across all sectors is vital if we are to turn back the tide of antimicrobial resistance and keep the world safe.”

The global fight against antibiotic resistance

A few countries and organisations have taken steps through several initiatives to tackle the challenges in this “post-antibiotic era”. Recently, a UK-based health charity, the Wellcome Trust, launched a global project to help track and document diseases associated with AMR. The Global Burden of Disease AMR project will gather data in a bid to create a map of disease and deaths due to drug-resistant infections worldwide. A recent analysis conducted by the Wellcome Trust and the UN Foundation based on a questionnaire distributed in 151 countries found that 85% of the countries that responded either have developed or are developing a national action plan to address the issue of antimicrobial resistance. However, fewer than half have an actual plan that addresses AMR in the human, animal and environmental sectors.

Meanwhile, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has implemented a National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System for Enteric Bacteria (NARMS). This system can be utilised by researchers to track and study changes in antibiotic resistance among several bacteria that are normally transmitted through food. Data obtained through these studies will help improve the understanding of resistance trends and new or emerging combinations of resistance. They will also help in identifying the bacteria that make people sick and specific groups that are at risk.

As part of the continuous effort to enhance public awareness and understanding of antimicrobial resistance, the WHO is organizing the World Antibiotic Awareness Week (WAAW) 2017 from 13 to 19 November 2017. The focus this year is to encourage the public to seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional before taking antibiotics.

Possible impact of antibiotics usage restrictions in food animal production

Antimicrobial resistance has been recognized as a serious public health issue.
Antimicrobial resistance has been recognized as a serious public health issue.

Despite the worry regarding excessive antibiotics usage in farm animals, concern also rises on the possible consequences if certain countries begin to impose restrictions or completely ban the use of antibiotic in the agricultural sector.

According to a case study following the antibiotic ban in Denmark, which was made compulsory in 2000, the ban resulted in greater amounts of antibiotics used to treat animal disease. Quantities of antibiotics used for therapeutic purposes increased up to 223 %. In addition, it was found that while resistance to some antibiotics has decreased in animals, resistance to other antibiotics has increased.

During a press conference at a national-level Veterinary Day event in 2016, Malaysian Veterinary Services Department director-general Datuk Dr. Kamarudin Md Isa said the use of antibiotics on livestock was still needed, as similar to humans, farm animals also suffer from ailments such as fever, flu and cough. He also said that several developed countries had stopped using antibiotics on livestock and practised organic animal rearing instead. “But, consumers there have to pay higher prices for meat. Are we ready to fork out extra money to enjoy organic meat?” the director-general posed a question regarding the alternative. MIMS

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